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Daddy Long Legs

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Letter writing is a dying (dead?) art today, but it's easy to see why it's so tantalized fiction authors over the ages. It's given them an opportunity to tell as much or as little of a story as they like, from as many or as few points as they like, in ways that typically tend more toward terse and blithe than long-winded. But what works in one medium doesn't always work in another. For everything like Love Letters, one of the few theatre pieces of this sort that packs any kind of a lasting punch, there are a dozen more that try too hard to work within another form's limitations than in adapting them to the stage.

That's the sad case with Daddy Long Legs, the handsome, appealing, and inert musical by John Caird and Paul Gordon that is making its New York premiere at the Davenport Theatre on 45th Street. It's based, quite faithfully, on Jean Webster's short 1912 epistolary novel (there styled Daddy-Long-Legs) about the young orphan Jerusha Abbott who's put through college by a benefactor she's never allowed to meet (the "daddy" of the title), and who insists on her writing him once a month to update him on her progress toward becoming a writer.

Though considered something of a teen novel today, it's actually fairly adult and a keen window into its era. Jerusha experiments with ideas of women's suffrage and socialist politics, and finds herself in situations that force her to challenge and eventually outright defy the Daddy she sees as being almost as controlling as a biological father. She's also increasingly drawn to Jervis Pendleton, the uncle of a tony school rival from "one of the finest families in New York," who seems to take a special interest in playing social and emotional footsie with Jerusha (who abandons her orphanage name in favor of "Judy") across all commonsense boundaries of age and class.

Bookwriter Caird and songwriter Gordon have properly captured Jerusha's youthful enthusiasm and ebullient language in a series of short scenes and a collection of songs (about two dozen) that draw heavily from Webster and unfold, like her plot did, entirely through written correspondence. Where they fall short is maintaining the suspense the original. Webster didn't reveal Daddy's identity until her book's final letter (though of course it's possible to guess it much earlier), but because there are only two performers in the musical (Jerusha, played by Megan McGinnis, and Jervis, played by Paul Alexander Nolan), the question isn't whether they'll discover each other, but when. And if the answer isn't "the very end," it wouldn't be much of a show, would it?

There are ways to make this work, of course—She Loves Me, which is being revived on Broadway later this season, runs on quite delightfully for long after we know half of the central lovers' secrets—but they require something of a commitment to invention. Webster's own stage adaptation had some 16 characters, showing that even she realized a need to open it up, and two major film adaptations (one with Shirley Temple, called Curly Top, and another with the original title starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron) took significant liberties with the property.

Such daring is not present in this musical, nor is much theatricality. The two performers parade about David Farley's library set, singing their letters and occasionally narrating what comes between, but filling out the billowing spaces in the action. Though Gordon (whose highest-profile credit to date is the 2000 Broadway musical, Jane Eyre) has written some lovely songs that reflect Jerusha's wonderment, Jervis's distance, and the internal difficulties the two have coming together, it's not especially rich or transporting work.

Except for "My Manhattan," a lively and subtly romantic whirl in which Jervis takes Jerusha on a tour of the bustling big city at the beginning of Act II, there's little here that seems to crave this form of storytelling. Caird's staging of it all isn't bad, but it's necessarily restricted; he keeps us from being bored, but just barely, and doesn't take us much further than that. Over nearly two and a half hours of play time, that's not enough.

At least McGinnis and Nolan are a winning central pair, singing well and rendering their characters in attractive if shallow terms. McGinnis displays a nice, gradual growth from have-nothing girl to confident woman, without too deeply overplaying Jerusha's obvious spunk. Nolan, late of Doctor Zhivago (but better known from Once and Jesus Christ Superstar), finds the right balance between sporty and stuffy to let us see how Jervis is a man adrift in his own private world. And, on the few occasions they sing and interact directly, the pair has a lightly simmering chemistry.

It's the calculated heat we experience in those few moments that musicals truly thrive on, and need regardless of whether they're small or huge. In the theatre, words are where singing and dancing begin, not where they end; they must employ different tactics to replicate a paragraph that leaps off the page. When those are missing, no matter how professional—or even good—the final product is, it will still have a stodgy, unopened feeling. This Daddy Long Legs has some real virtues, but it may as well be marked "return to sender."

Daddy Long Legs
Through October 18
Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45 Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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