Is By Jeeves a Possibility For the Helen Hayes?

News   Is By Jeeves a Possibility For the Helen Hayes? The Feb. 7 New York Times ad announcing "last weeks" for Dirty Blonde, the frisky Claudia Shear play at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is fueling speculation that the intimate Broadway house may have a new tenant before the 2001 Tony Award eligibility runs out May 2.
Becky Watson and John Scherer in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's By Jeeves.
Becky Watson and John Scherer in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's By Jeeves. (Photo by Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons)

The Feb. 7 New York Times ad announcing "last weeks" for Dirty Blonde, the frisky Claudia Shear play at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is fueling speculation that the intimate Broadway house may have a new tenant before the 2001 Tony Award eligibility runs out May 2.

The most high-profile production aiming toward Broadway is the revised new staging of By Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse-inspired musical comedy by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist-lyricist-director Alan Ayckbourn. A new staging of the tuner is 91 percent sold out in its current run through March 4 at Pittsburgh Public Theater. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania nonprofit told Playbill On-Line the run is expected to be sold out by the Feb. 9 opening.

Both Goodspeed Musicals, which staged the show's American premiere in 1996, and Pittsburgh Public Theater said in recent days they would partner as co-producers for an imminent future commercial staging. Broadway is the goal of the staging, but venues have been full recently. It's thought a cavernous theatre would be wrong for the 13-actor jewel-box musical, which harkens to the days of the intimate Princess Theatre musicals written by Wodehouse, Jerome Kern and others in the 1920s. The Hayes seats about 600. The Booth Theatre, which seats about 800, is booked with Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at least to April 1.

Previously, the Hayes has been mentioned as the destination for the regionally-popular solo show, Gershwin Alone, written by and starring pianist-actor Hershey Felder. Hayes owner Martin Markinson is a producer of the tribute to composer George Gershwin. The biographical play-with-music was a six-month hit at Los Angeles' Tiffany Theatre in 2000 and subsequently played dates in Florida.

"I've got my eye on the Helen Hayes as do the producers," Felder previously told Playbill On-Line, "but it all depends on what happens with Dirty Blonde." *

John Scherer is bumbling Bertie Wooster and Martin Jarvis is his wise manservant, Jeeves, in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's staging of the Lloyd Webber-Ayckbourn musical, By Jeeves, Feb. 1-March 4. Official opening in Pittsburgh is Feb. 9.

Lauded British playwright Ayckbourn himself directs the staging at Pittsburgh's major resident professional theatre. He penned book and lyrics for the musical comedy; Lloyd Webber, who attended Jan. 31 rehearsals and the dress rehearsal, is the famed composer. By Jeeves is a rewrite of Jeeves, a 1975 musical by Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber that did not find wide fame.

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The hope that By Jeeves might move on to a greater commercial future began several years ago when the U.S. premiere production was staged in 1996 (following a debut in London) at The Norma Terris Theatre, the developmental house in Chester, CT, run by Goodspeed Musicals. Although that staging played subsequent engagements in 1997 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, it did not continue beyond there.

Based on the dry, charming, farcical Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse, By Jeeves takes place in a church hall where Bertie Wooster is scheduled to give a banjo recital. According to production notes, "Jeeves, a lover of music, steals the banjo, forcing Bertie to improvise with a dizzying tale full of romantic entanglements and mistaken identities involving his friends and their love interests."

Scherer most recently worked with director Harold Prince on the world premiere of 3hree at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. He played Bertie Wooster in the U.S. premiere of By Jeeves at Goodspeed-at-Chester, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Kennedy Center. He received a Helen Hayes Award nomination in Washington DC for his performance. On Broadway, he appeared in Sunset Boulevard as Joe Gillis, and at the Goodspeed Opera House in George M.

Jarvis, one of Britain's most distinguished actors, starred in many award winning West End and Royal National Theatre productions of plays by Sir Alan Ayckbourn (Woman in Mind, Just Between Ourselves) and Harold Pinter (Other Places, Precisely); as well as Frayn, Hare, Nichols, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde. He recently appeared at London's Almeida Theatre (The Doctor's Dilemma), Donmar Warehouse (Passion Play), and California's South Coast Repertory (Skylight).

"In order to accommodate the unique production challenges and the vision of the director and design team," according to a statement, the Pittsburgh Public's three-quarter thrust space, the O'Reilly Theater, will be changed into a modified proscenium layout. "Part of the excitement of live theatre is the need to be flexible and creative," Public artistic director Ted Pappas said in a statement. "I'm thrilled to offer Public Theater audiences a new experience..."

The cast also features top North American theatre talent, including the lauded farceur Heath Lamberts (the Shaw Festival, Beauty and the Beast) as Sir Watkyn Bassett, Emily Loesser (Titanic) as Stiffy Byng, Donna Lynne Champlin (as Honoria Glossop), Don Stephenson (Bingo Little), James Kall (Gussie Fink-Nottle), Becky Watson (Madeline Bassett), Ian Knauer (Harold "Stinker" Pinker) and Steve Wilson (Cyrus Budge III). Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe, and Court Whisman round out the ensemble.

Ayckbourn has written 56 plays, including the recent London and Off-Broadway comedies, Communicating Doors and Comic Potential. He is the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. His works include Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Just Between Ourselves, How the Other Half Loves, A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind, A Small Family Business, Man of the Moment, Communicating Doors, Bedroom Farce and House/Garden.

Lloyd Webber is one of the most successful and popular theatre composers in history, having composed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Jeeves (later reworked as By Jeeves), Evita, Variations and Tell Me on a Sunday (later combined as Song & Dance), Cats, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than 120 novels, magazine articles, musicals, plays, and film scripts. Born in 1881 in Guildford, Surrey, Wodehouse served as drama critic for Vanity Fair, which led to his collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton on the musicals Oh, Boy!, Leave it to Jane and Oh, Lady! Lady! He also wrote Oh, Kay! with George and Ira Gershwin.

Sheila Carter choreographs By Jeeves. Musical supervision is by Michael O'Flaherty. F. Wade Russo is musical director. The design team includes Roger Glossup (scenic), Louise Belson (costume), Mick Hughes (lighting), and Richard Ryan (sound). The production stage manager is Daniel S. Rosokoff and the assistant stage manager is Hillary Cook. Most of that team was responsible for the 1996 London production, as well as the American premiere at Goodspeed.

Pittsburgh Public tickets are $28-$50. The O'Reilly Theatre is at 621 Penn Avenue, in downtown Pittsburgh. Student rates are available. For information, call (412) 316-1600, or visit the website at www.ppt.org.