P.G. Wodehouse fanatics and, indeed, Anglophiles of all stripes may want to pay a visit to “By Jeeves,” a winking romp that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn devised as a loving tribute to the human menagerie that populates the English author’s most famous stories. But will this subset of theatergoers be enough to make the production a Broadway success? The appeal of Jeeves & Co., which is neatly bottled in this slight, self-consciously daft show, is by no means universal. To those left untickled by handles like Gussie Fink-Nottle, Honoria Glossop and Stiffy Byng, “By Jeeves” will be either a puzzlement or an irritant.
The show modestly calls itself a “musical entertainment”; it still more modestly billed itself as a “diversionary entertainment” in at least one previous U.S. outing. In any case, the thingamajig is making its first visit to Broadway (a version was first staged more than two decades ago), and it’s been subsidized by the composer and other English investors, who stepped in with financing when some of the Goodspeed Musicals production’s backers opted out post-Sept. 11.
The show proper is housed within a faux-amateur frame: We are the audience at a church benefit, and the banjo-strumming star is John Scherer’s cheerily clueless Bertie Wooster, the gentleman who couldn’t tie his shoes without the aid of his famously unflappable butler, Jeeves (a delightfully deadpan Martin Jarvis).
Bertie’s banjo has gone missing (knowing smile from Jeeves), and the helpful manservant suggests relating a misadventure from Bertie’s recent past. With the aid of assorted pals on hand and Jeeves’ adept marshaling of costumes and props from the church basement, there is enacted before us a farcical tale of several star-crossed romances.
Bertie’s goofy pal Gussie loves hysterical heiress Madeline, and she loves him. But the loping American lunkhead Cyrus Budge III (Jr.) also loves Madeline. Bingo Little is in love with Honoria, who still holds a candle for Bertie, who is smugly in love with nobody, and is horrified to read in the Times that he’s engaged to Stiffy, ward of the pompously glowering Sir Watkyn Bassett, uncle of Madeline. Oh, never mind: It’s for Jeeves to sort all that out.
The terrific cast performs with bouncy relish under Ayckbourn’s direction, piling on the italicized Englishness that Wodehouse was sending up. Scherer is wonderfully fatuous as Bertie, with flapping eyebrows and crinkling forehead working overtime. He’s also got a handsome light tenor that’s nicely suited to the tone of Lloyd Webber’s slight but occasionally quite charming score, which draws on classic English forebears from music hall ditties to Noel Coward to Gilbert & Sullivan (Ayckbourn supplies the lyrics).
Standouts in the supporting cast include Donna Lynne Champlin’s Honoria, who crinkles her nose and galumphs about with exaggerated gusto like a horsy English girl; Becky Watson’s girlish Madeline, twirling about giddily in the prettiest of Louise Belson’s costumes; James Kall, spot-on as the tongue-tied and lovestruck Gussie; and Sam Tsoutsouvas, quite smashing as the blustery Sir Watkyn.
That said, the backstage humor deriving from the makeshift nature of the proceedings is overplayed, and the frenzied onstage antics aren’t really funny enough to justify the show’s 2½-hour length. By the time the entire cast reassembles at the curtain in costumes from “The Wizard of Oz” for a superfluous finale (even here, a megamix!), the smiles the show has raised from even the friendliest in the audience may have grown a bit thin.