Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Daddy Long Legs
Based on a 1916 epistolary novel by Jean Webster, Daddy Long Legs concerns one Jerusha Abbott (Elise Vannerson), an orphan who is rapidly aging out of the system with no future prospects in view. Her luck abruptly changes when an anonymous benefactor, known to her under the generic pseudonym "John Smith," offers to fund her college education at a tony New England women's college. In exchange for her betterment, Jerusha must write him monthly letters to which he will never respond, and must never seek to learn his true identity.
Jerusha catches one quick glimpse of her patron's shadow as she prepares to leave the orphanage, and concludes that his tall, lanky frame resembles a daddy long legs spider; she adopts this moniker in her letters. She imagines Daddy Long Legs as a bald octogenarian, but in truth, he is Jervis Pendelton (Ben Michael), the handsome, eligible, and socially minded uncle of a stuck-up college classmate. Before long, Jervis falls under the spell of Jerusha's winsome letters, and begins to find ways of clandestinely inserting himself into her life.
The musical, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and a libretto by John Caird, is essentially one long, drawn-out meet cute. The story's conclusion is as obvious as it is lifted from Jane Eyre. The question then becomes whether the ensuing two hours are worth the audience's time, and the answer there is a resounding no. Gordon and Caird share considerable blame in this respect: the former supplies a generic, anachronistic score, with lyrics that vary from the vapid ("Once I gave to those in need / Now I'm in need of you) to the truly tortured ("The humor is quaint / And reading her prose / I suppose is more fun / Then watching the drying of paint"), and the latter's leaden book majorly impedes director Michael Mastro's attempts to keep the show moving swiftly.
It doesn't help that neither Vannerson nor Michael seem entirely comfortable in their roles. At the performance I needed, both sounded vocally distressed for much of the first act, although they settled into respectable, if bland, performances by the second. Still, with New York City less than fifty miles away, one wonders if these two are truly the best that a prestigious regional theater could do.
I have not read Webster's source novel, so I cannot comment on the tone her prose takes. Yet watching the musicalization of this story, I couldn't help but feel bowled over by an avalanche of missed opportunities apparent in the dramaturgy. This is clearly Jerusha's story, yet Jervis remains a cipher throughout; his reasons for giving charity are never entirely explained, and for someone who set out to have no relationship with his ward, his change of heart comes about all too quickly. There are darker elements to a sponsor-sponsee relationshipespecially one that ultimately turns romanticthat are entirely glossed in favor of retaining an "American Girl" air. In addition to Bronte's Jane, Webster was clearly influenced by the likes of Dickens, Alcott, and Algerall writers who were not afraid to temper their sunny stories with a healthy dose of gloom. Yet the relentless optimism of Gordon and Caird's adaptation has, for me at least, the opposite effect: it feels highly offensive in its inoffensiveness.
Daddy Long Legs continues at George Street Playhouse (9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick) through Saturday, December 24, 2016. Tickets ($17-76) can be purchased online at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or by calling 732-846-2895.