Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
For anyone unfamiliar with Minnesota history, James J. Hill was a fabulously wealthy 19th century railroad magnate. His home, sited on a hill overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River, is now a major attraction owned and operated by the Minnesota State Historical Society. Upon its completion in 1891 it was the largest (at 36,500 square feet on five floors) and costliest home in the state. Today it is described as "Minnesota's Downton Abbey," and the comparison is apt.
Daddy Long Legs is performed in the mansion's exquisite Great Hall. Intricately carved wood bannisters flow from the Great Hall to the landing of the grand staircase, on which the musical ensemble (keyboard, cello and guitar) are stationed. A string of chairs two rows deep encircles the Great Hall, giving every audience member an intimate view of the proceedings.
We first meet Jerusha Abbott as the oldest orphan at the John Grier Home for Orphans. She will soon be too old to remain at the asylum, as it is called, but with no family or means of support, has nowhere else to go. Jerusha therefore is elated when one of John Grier's trustees becomes aware of her talent for writing. He will pay the full costtuition, room, board, and a generous spending allowancefor her to attend college. However, his gift comes with strange terms: 1) He will never reveal his real name to her, using the pseudonym John Smith; 2) She must write to him every month, reporting on her studies and college life, but he will never respond to her.
Delighted as she is to be college bound, Jerusha is keen to learn about her benefactor, in spite of his prohibitions. Certain that he must be very old and finding "John Smith" to lack imagination, she devises the name Daddy Long Legs for him, and begs him to at least tell her whether he is bald or merely grey. Though his terms clearly state that he will never respond to her queries, Daddy Long Legs, whose real name is Jervis Pendleton, finds Jerusha's letters brimming with zest for learning and life.
This becomes a problem for Jervis, who is in fact not old but an earnest young man, rebelling against his wealthy family's penchant to think only of themselves by helping the less fortunate. A bachelor, he is appalled by matches with heiresses proposed by his family, who view marriage as a business arrangement. Jerusha wins him over through her open-hearted letters, her effervescence and kindness imbedded in every line. Yet he is obliged to his oath of privacy. It is a conundrum, but over the course of four years of college, might there not be an opportunity, however circuitous, for love to find its way?
This charming story is based on Jean Webster's 1912 novel "Daddy-Long-Legs." It was hugely popular in its day, and in 1914 Webster adapted it into a stage play. In 1919 a silent film version starring Mary Pickford appeared, followed by a "talkie" in 1931 starring Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter, and a 1935 movie tailored for child star Shirley Temple, called Curly Top. It is probably best known today as the basis for a 1955 movie musical starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. There have been film versions in Japanese, Korean and Hindi, and at least one other stage musical version. Clearly, it is a tale with universal appeal that carries handily into this musical, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird. The musical made its first appearance at Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California, played in London in 2012, and enjoyed an Off-Broadway run in 2015. This its first Minnesota production, directed with loving care by Amanda Weis.
Daddy Long Legs is a largely epistolary work, with much of the plot development and many of the songs ingrained into the letters Jerusha sends to her benefactor, and the responses Jervis composes but tears up without sending, as well as internal monologue put to song. Only two characters appear and they spend most of their time at opposite ends of the playing area. The whole affair could have been terribly stilted, but it never is. We feel the spark of growing affection forming between the two, and the heady anticipation of the plot finding its way to a happy ending that seems preordained. Several songs begin with Jerusha singing a letter she is composing, with the vocal taken up by Jervis as he reads the letter, then back and forth between the two, sometimes both in harmony, to charming effect.
Gordon's score is pleasing despite a sameness to some of his melodies. They tend to run in two lanes: upbeat songs regarding Jerusha's status in life, such as the lively opening "The Oldest Orphan in the John Greer Home," and songs that capture her yearning to know the real Daddy Long Legs; and Jervis's yearning to reveal himself to his intoxicating correspondent. "I Didn't Know," "What Does She Mean By Love?" and "The Secret of Happiness" are especially memorable. It is all beautifully played by an ensemble led by music director Jean Orbison Van Heel, and abetted by jewel-like performances from Maddie Olsem as Jerusha and Chris Paulson as Jervis.
As Jerusha, Olsem has the advantage of being asked to express exuberance and anger, a stronger emotional arc than Paulson portrays as Jervis. On the other hand, Paulson poignantly conveys the change Jervis goes through, from emotionally aloof benefactor to ardently enthralled and frustrated suitor. Both actors have full, lovely voices that deliver the bountiful score with beautiful tones and authentic feeling.
Weis keeps the piece moving swiftly, so we feel as if there is a good deal more action than there actually is, and balances her actors' opportunities to shine. There is no scenic designerunless one credits the architect who designed the James J. Hill House over 130 years ago. Given that the space was not intended to house live theater, Abe Gabor and Grace Barnstead have designed most effective lighting and sound, respectively, while A. Emily Heaney provides Jerusha and Jervis with period-perfect costumes, with Jerusha's attire showing increased sophistication as she progresses through her years in college.
Lest you fear that Jerusha is a retro-heroine who depends on her charms to win gifts and favors from her benefactor, this is a fiercely independent young lady. As an orphan, she of course depends on the generosity of others, but she makes it clear that she intends to prepare to be a self-sufficient woman. She speaks out for women's suffrage and the reform of public services, such as the John Greer Home. She takes great pride in her intelligence and would never consider toning down her shine to win a man's approval. Jerusha is a positive role model for girls in 2020, to say nothing of how she appeared in 1912.
Daddy Long Legs is a modest but thoroughly enjoyable musical. It has a positive, upbeat tone and bears a good heart, two qualities that are always welcome. Its score is lovely, its performances wonderful, and the James J. Hill House setting a stroke of genius. As a bonus, during intermission, audience members may explore several of the mansion's other rooms. Wedged between its fall production of the creepy Night of the Living Dead and its upcoming spring show Lizzie (as in axe murderer Lizzie Borden), Minneapolis Musical Theater has delivered a fresh bouquet for winter, perfect for Valentine's Day and anyone with an appetite for wide-eyed romance.
Daddy Long Legs, a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, runs through February 29, 2020, at the James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Ave., St. Paul MN. Tickets: $38.00; students and seniors (65+) - $26.00 for all seats. For tickets and information, call 612-440-6681 or visit www.aboutmmt.org.
Music and Lyrics: Paul Gordon; Book: John Caird, based on the novel by Jean Webster; Director: Amanda Weis; Music Director: Jean Orbison Van Heel; Orchestrations: Paul Gordon and Brad Haak; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Grace Barnstead; Sound Design: Abe Gabor: Props Design: Sara Kessler; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler.
Cast: Maddie Olsem (Jerusha Abbott), Chris Paulson (Jervis Pendleton).