Those halcyon days when the rich and pampered English basked in the giddy between-the-wars sunshine are revived Oct. 16, when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn's musical confection, By Jeeves, begins previews at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre.
The show, billed as "a musical entertainment," has been in development for many years — beginning with a seminal work by composer Lloyd Webber and librettist-lyricist-director Ayckbourn called Jeeves, in 1975. It's being called an "entertainment" due to the nature of it theatrical frame: It takes place in a church hall where Bertie Wooster is scheduled to give a banjo recital. His faithful manservant, 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. The church hall later represents "a London flat and the house and grounds of Totleigh Towers," according to the Playbill.
The characters are based on the popular comic novels by P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote lovingly about the British leisure set between the world wars, the 1920s and '30s. Goodspeed Musicals is producer of the jazz-flecked musical comedy, which has an official opening of Oct. 28.
Most of the Broadway company is held over from the February 2001 Pittsburgh Public staging that was a further revision of the 1996 production that played Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre before moving on to Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Before its U.S. premiere at Goodspeed in 1996, the rewritten By Jeeves premiered at Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England and then moved on to a successful London run. The separate U.S. staging five years ago was developed while the London run continued.
John Scherer and Martin Jarvis star as the famed Wodehouse characters, Bertie Wooster and loyal valet Jeeves. American Scherer and British Jarvis played the roles earlier this year at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, where librettist lyricist-director Ayckbourn and composer Lloyd Webber were in residence to put finishing touches on the resident staging of the Broadway-bound show. After a delay of several months due to the lack of a suitable Broadway venue, producer Goodspeed Musicals finally snagged the intimate, 597-seat Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway, considered perfect for the jewelbox of a musical. The show is now billed as a limited engagement of 16 weeks, through Feb. 3, 2002, although if audiences and critics fall in love with this tea-party of a show, Jeeves and Wooster will likely be brewing on Broadway well into 2002.
The cast includes Donna Lynne Champlin (Honoria Glossop), James Kall (Gussie Fink-Nottle) Ian Knauer (Harold Stinker Pinker), Emily Loesser (Stiffy Byng), Don Stephenson (Bingo Little), Sam Tsoutsouvas (Sir Watkyn Bassett), Becky Watson (Madeline Bassett) and Steve Wilson (Cyrus Budge III), and Tom Ford, Molly Renfroe and Court Whisman. Tsoutsouvas is the sole newcomer to the cast, replacing Heath Lamberts, who played Sir Watkyn Bassett in Pittsburgh. Cristin Mortenson and Jamison Stern are swings. David Edwards stands by.
The idyllic world of circa 1920s British rich folk was rocked in recent weeks (as all of the world was). Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, two investors withdrew from the project owing to economic jitters, and the show was "indefinitely postponed" by Sept. 18. Lloyd Webber stepped in and found investors to take up the slack, and the show was on again two days later.
Scherer most recently appeared in the trio of one-act musicals, 3hree, and previously played the frivolous Bertie Wooster in the U.S. premiere of By Jeeves at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in 1996, and in 1997 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. In DC, he received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for his performance (and also earned a Hayes nom for Arena Stage's On the Town). On Broadway, he played Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard opposite Betty Buckley. He graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University.
Jarvis, playing the always-correct manservant of the title, has appeared in many West End and Royal National Theatre productions of plays by Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, David Hare, Peter Nichols, Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde. His credits include Peter Hall's The Importance of Being Earnest, Twelfth Night and On Approval, Almeida Theatre's The Doctor's Dilemma, Donmar Warehouse's Passion Play and South Coast Repertory Theatre's Skylight.
Ayckbourn also directed the February 2001 production of By Jeeves at Pittsburgh Public Theatre. That staging was documented in a video production filmed in a studio in Canada earlier this year. A home or broadcast release has not been announced. Designers for By Jeeves on Broadway designers are Roger Glossop (scenic), Louise Belson (costumes), Mick Hughes (lighting), Richard Ryan (sound) and Bobby H. Grayson (hair). Michael O'Flaherty conducts. F. Wade Russo is associate conductor. Musical arrangements are by David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sheila Carter choreographs.
Lloyd Webber is one of the most successful 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.
The composer is working on the film version of The Phantom of the Opera and has reportedly enlisted director Robert Carsen, who has a background almost exclusively in opera, to stage a revised version of Sunset Boulevard. Carsen's staging of The Beautiful Game is expected in Toronto in fall 2002, according to The Toronto Star.
The British Ayckbourn is known for his hugely successful stage comedies, including The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, Communicating Doors, Comic Potential, Absurd Person Singular, A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind, Man of the Moment and more.
A cast album of By Jeeves in on the Really Useful Records/Decca Broadway label. The Broadway score includes "A False Start," "Never Fear," "Travel Hopefully," "That Was Nearly Us," "Love's Maze," "The Hallo Song," "By Jeeves," "When Love Arrives," "What Have You Got to Say, Jeeves," "Half a Moment," "It's a Pig!," "Banjo Boy" and "The Wizard Rainbow Finale."
Tickets are $75-$85. The Helen Hayes is at 240 W. 44th St. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200
To view Playbill On-Line's February 2001 Brief Encounter with Ayckbourn, click here.