By now By Jeeves by Andrew Lloyd Webber comes as no surprise as being among the British composer’s most scaled-back musicals, especially in comparison to spectacles such as Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. No crawling felines (though there is a man in a pig mask). No descending chandeliers (though there’s an impressive trick with a falling ladder that merits hazard pay).
It’s essentially a show on a bare stage with a few props and, as befits a farce, some doors. The comedy is motored by colorful characters, mistaken identities and tangled romantic twosomes that eventually get unsnarled.
Streaming through 2 p.m. ET on May 10 in the latest installment of the YouTube series, The Shows Must Go On, By Jeeves, which calls itself a “musical entertainment,” delivers on that promise. Modest delights include a few laughs, bouncy period songs reflecting the 1920s and 1930s, and expertly pitched lead performances.
Co-created by English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who wrote the script and lyrics and directs, the curvy plot is drawn from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie Wooster tales following the exploits of, respectively, a meticulously unflappable valet played with polish and sly sparkle by Martin Jarvis, and his affably idle rich employer portrayed by an appealing John Scherer. Both actors, along with many of the supporting players, were in the three-month 2001 Broadway presentation.
That New York run came more than a quarter century after Lloyd Webber and Ayckbourn’s attempt in 1975 to crack the stories as a musical. Originally just called Jeeves, the show’s run in London lasted a month. The creative team’s somewhat more successful rewritten and renamed version debuted in London in 1996. The current streaming version was filmed in Pittsburgh prior to Broadway.
Direction in the filmed version leans heavily into close-ups, so much so that Jeeves’ arched eyebrow looms as large as a proscenium. That’s a telltale sign of the difference between live theater and film. Then again, By Jeeves offers up another reminder. As the show begins, Bertie’s about to give a banjo concert, but the instrument breaks. So he tells stories instead to his appreciative audience. It’s not what they came for, but the show must go on. The parallels to today couldn’t be plainer.