Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Phantom
Based on Jean Webster's 1912 novel, Daddy Long Legs tells of Jerusha Abbott, an eighteen-year-old orphan who is offered the chance for a full college education by an anonymous benefactorone of the orphanage's Trusteesso that she might study to become a writer. In return, she must write to her benefactor once a month, never thank him, and never expect a reply. Her sponsor is Jervis Pendleton, a rich, young man with a kind heart and progressive mind, but Jerusha assumes him to be elderly and dubs him "Daddy Long Legs." Jervis, however, becomes inquisitive about his protégé, thanks to her humorous and touching letters, and he befriends her in real life as Jervis without her knowing his hidden identity. Romantic complications ensue from there.
On the surface, Daddy Long Legs contains many weaknesses that would doom almost any other show in regard to its storytelling, including an over-reliance on exposition, limited character interaction, a lack of significant tension, and a rushed and predicable ending. However, this musical seems mostly unaffected by these flaws. Book writer (and production Director) John Caird provides well-drawn characters with strong emotional arcs, well placed humor, a nicely restrained romantic sensibility, and an exceedingly charming conceit that creates an overriding amiability which more than offsets its shortcomings.
The score by Paul Gordon (Broadway's Jane Eyre, Playhouse's Emma) is an enjoyable one that will lead many rushing to buy the CD in the lobby after the show. Most songs are presented as the reading of the letters that Jerusha sends to her Daddy Long Legs. The music is sufficiently varied, with emotionally cathartic anthems reminiscent of his Jane Eyre songs (though with admittedly (and aptly) less dark undertones), some cute and lilting comedic numbers, and a few pop influenced tunes (which, while wonderfully melodic, might benefit from a less modern orchestration). Mr. Gordon's witty lyrics are efficient, often unexpected, and, along with Mr. Caird's dialogue, they convey the beauty of the English language. Song highlights include the opening number, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home" (an effective "want song" for Jerusha that also provides her back story), "Like Other Girls," "The Color of Your Eyes" and "I Couldn't Know Someone Less."
As Jerusha, Megan McGinnis delightfully embodies the fun protagonist with excitement, spunk, authenticity and warmththe attributes that endear her to Jervis (and to the audience). She also sings the score's best songs with an enchanting voice, strong in power yet gentle in tone. Though Robert Adelman Hancock doesn't have as much to work with as Jervis, he sufficiently portrays the stiff, proper and mannered benefactor, and gets lots of laughs as the character becomes buffoonish as his jealousy takes root. His singing voice is a bit pinched on his solo numbers, though he does blend his voice in the harmony portions of the score quite nicely.
As Director, Mr. Caird recognizes the possible pitfalls of his own book and minimizes their impact through his direction. He provides active blocking, wisely focuses on the relationships of this character-driven show, and rarely allows more than a few minutes go by without inducing a laugh or smile from the audience. Musical Director Laura Bergquist capably leads a six-piece orchestra executing orchestrations by the composer.
David Farley provides a handsome unit set with trunks and books scattered about (smartly used to convey multiple locales) and a slightly raised library, as well as attractive, period-appropriate costumes. It would be nice, however, if the scrims that represent several settings weren't so obscured by the bookshelves of the library. The atmospheric lighting is professionally rendered by Paul Toben.
Daddy Long Legs isn't a perfect show, but it contains extremely endearing characters and songs, and is well performed and executed in this entertaining production by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The musical continues through April 10, 2010. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.
-- Scott Cain