Daddy Long Legs
Also see Sharon's review of Children of the Night
For those unfamiliar with Jean Webster's 1912 young adult novel from which it was adapted, here's the set-up: Jerusha Abbott is the self-described "oldest orphan in the John Grier Home." She's sweet and spunky and has that instant likeability we generally expect in our parentless protagonists. Having taken her studies as far as she could take them at the Home, she is surprised to learn that one of the Home's trustees has offered to put her through college, so she may study to become a writer. Her benefactor wishes to remain anonymous - but she catches a glimpse of his tall, slim frame from behind, and decides to dub him "Daddy Long Legs." Her anonymous sponsor imposes several rules - she may never thank him, but she must write him monthly, informing him of how she is progressing. She is told that he won't read her letters (he just thinks it is good practice for her writing) and will certainly never reply.
And we're off on what is, basically, an epistolary musical. The hour-long first act is comprised of 15 songs, many of which are Jerusha's letters. Paul Gordon's lyrics here are everything lyrics ought to be - poetic, expositional, and revelatory of character. Jerusha has a charming personality, an honesty of expression, and a general sense of excitement. It's almost as if, having grown up in a repressive orphanage, Jerusha never really had the opportunity to express emotions, and she's feeling everything for the first time. The music itself - played by a six-person band, heavy on the strings - mirrors the emotions, often feeling warm, optimistic, and comforting. Megan McGinnis has a lovely clear voice, which she partners with a crooked smile that lights up the room, creating a spirited young woman. Put it all together and we see Jerusha grow and evolve, from awkward teenager who does not know how to address her nameless benefactor, to confident adult.
And her benefactor sees it too. Despite his representation to the contrary, we see (very early on) that he does read her letters. We also see that he isn't the old man she presumes him to be. And as Jervis reads Jerusha's letters, he drafts - but doesn't send - several letters in response. Because Jervis, somewhat against his will, finds himself attracted to the wit, intelligence and increasing confidence of the young woman who is writing him monthly.
Even if you aren't familiar with the novel, you can pretty much see where this is heading - although credit must be given to Caird and Gordon for taking it there at a proper pace and with a solid amount of character development. When Jervis finds an excuse to meet Jerusha as himself, rather than identifying himself as her sponsor, it sets up a letter in which Jerusha excitedly writes about the man she just met. And while Jervis is pleased that she likes him and impressed at how perceptive she is about him, he also has the good sense to be ashamed that he is reading private thoughts which were never intended for his eyes. And it is this deception, this breach of trust, that sets up the real conflict in the piece, which has to be overcome if Jervis and Jerusha are going to end up together (or even just end up as friends).
Robert Adelman Hancock isn't quite as strong in his role as McGinnis is in hers. Hancock's voice blends very well with McGinnis's when Jervis is reading the letters Jerusha is writing, but grates a bit in his solo numbers. It probably doesn't help that Jervis's theme song, "Charity," is the weakest in the score - failing to convey, until its second act reprise, Jervis's political philosophy motivating his conduct and his complex feelings about charitable acts.
Caird's direction deftly handles a two-person musical in which the characters seldom interact. (It makes you wonder what he'd do with The Last Five Years.) But there are brilliant reactions all around - at one point, laughs are earned by how quickly Jervis grabs a pen to respond to a letter of Jerusha's. David Farley's set - in which Jervis is confined to an elevated library, while Jerusha's world is made up of trunks littering the floor - tells all in an economy of space. And Paul Toben's lighting runs the gamut from an idyllic farm to cold reality.
So, yes, with its sparkling female protagonist, its mysterious wealthy gentleman, its love story based on intellectual attraction, and its emotional betrayal, Daddy Long Legs is a great big "chick musical" softball just hanging there over the plate - and Gordon and Caird hit it right out of the park.
Daddy Long Legs runs through November 8, 2009 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. For tickets and information, see www.rubicontheatre.org.
Rubicon Theatre Company - Karyl Lynn Burns, Producing Artistic Director; James O'Neil, Artistic Director - presents Daddy Long Legs. Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon; Book by John Caird; Directed by John Caird; Musical direction by Laura Bergquist; Orchestrations by Paul Gordon. Associate Director Nell Balaban; Scenic and Costume Designer David Farley; Lighting Designer Paul Toben; Sound Designer Jonathan Burke; Prop Supervisor T. Theresa Scarano; Production Manager Christina M. Burck; Production Stage Manager Jaimie L. Johnson; Hair and Makeup Supervisor David Reynoso; Publicist David Elzer/DEMAND PR