By billing the latest incarnation of the perennial manservant tuner as a “new musical” and sticking the Union Jack on everything in sight, the savvy Pittsburgh Public has sold beaucoup tickets to a staging of “By Jeeves” that Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber have said they regard as definitive. But while the score has some catchy ditties and the signature Ayckbourn directorial accoutrements are certainly amusing, this is a very slight hybrid affair that may appear terminally thin if someone is foolhardy enough to stick naughty Bertie Wooster and his droll valet on Broadway. Jeeves had better wait on stock and the regionals.
Lloyd Webber’s fans, after all, are used to full-throated musicales that offer far more extensive scores — and much greater emotional heft — than the Lord serves up here. And while the astonishing Ayckbourn’s reputation only grows and grows, we’ve all now become used to his dispensing some middle-aged pain along with the comic hijinx. There was nothing of such substance on view in Pitt.
There’s another fundamental problem. The appeal of the sparkling P.G. Wodehouse stories that form the basis of this show revolves around the complexities of the relationship between Jeeves and Wooster. Although they are surrogate father and son, much of the constituent humor flows from Wodehouse’s savvy reversal of the power structure. We laugh because servant is so much smarter than master, but nonetheless accepts his place.
Here, John Scherer’s grinning Bertie and Martin Jarvis’ reined-in Jeeves never fully connect. Taken individually, both performances are fine (Jarvis, in particular, is both dignified and charming). But the distant actors seem to occupy different stylistic worlds rather than share the same big house, and the pivotal relationship on which this show turns just does not ring true.
That’s partly because there’s so much clutter around it. The premise is that Bertie was planning to deliver a banjo concert at Little Wittam Church, but his instrument never shows up. Therefore, Jeeves saves the proverbial day by coaxing Bertie into taking part in the amalgamated theatricalization of one of Wodehouse’s signature mistaken-identity shenanigans involving Gussie, Stiffy, Honoria and the rest of the gang.
The show-within-a-show frame allows Ayckbourn, who directs with the skills of a master farceur, to poke loving “Noises Off”-style fun at crude theatrics, and he offers such amusing sight gags as a dangling light man, faux handmade sets and human sound effects. So far as they go, these embellishments are both funny and entertaining, and the British design team has obliged with lots of clever set pieces.
But by the time the show dissolves into a finale in which the ensemble shows up as characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” things have strayed too far from the source material. How “The Wizard Rainbow Finale” contributes to a show about Jeeves and Wooster is impossible to discern.
Along the way, there are some pleasant songs to enjoy. The delightful “Travel Hopefully” quickly lodges itself in the head, and “Half a Moment” is a lovely ballad, but there’s just not enough here to constitute a full-blown musical. The show also suffers from the bizarre handicap of Jeeves singing nary a note (he does speak rhythmically from time to time).
Ultimately, you are left with the sense that, for all its cleverness, this latest production paid insufficient attention to such fundamentals as truth and emotional connection. Even if the aim was the frothiest of entertainments, audiences still need to feel that Bertie and Jeeves care for each other. And, that lacking, “By Jeeves” is a pleasant trifle but goes no further.