Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Daddy Long Legs
The story takes place over a four-year period in the early 1900s and follows the plight of Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan at the John Grier Home, and the mysterious benefactor who offers her a fully paid opportunity to go to college. Jerusha knows that the mystery man is a trustee of the orphanage, he wishes to remain anonymous, and he will simply go by the name "Mr. Smith."
While Jerusha never saw Mr. Smith" in person, she knows he's tall, as she saw his elongated shadow on the ground when he was leaving the orphanage, so she decides to call him "Daddy Long Legs." One of the requirements of the arrangement is that Jerusha must send monthly letters to her anonymous philanthropist to keep him abreast of her education and experiences. However, as an additional part of the arrangement, she also knows that he will never write her back. She believes her mysterious patron to be old, and possibly bald, but in reality, he is Jervis Pendleton, a young, handsome member of the board of directors of the orphanage. He also has a full head of hair. And, while he wished to remain anonymous and uninvolved in Jerusha's life, he quickly realizes he's taken on more than he thought as he's drawn to Jerusha through her expressive letters. As the two grow and change from their experiences and their relationship, Jervis realizes that Jerusha is helping him become a better man while he is helping her gain an education.
The musical is based on the 1912 novel of the same name by Jean Webster and the action, and the majority of the dialogue, revolves around the monthly letters Jerusha sends to her benefactor along with a few encounters she has with Jervis, who happens to also be the uncle of one of her classmates. John Caird's book does a very good job in moving the plot along using mainly only the words in Jerusha's letters and a few personal reactions the two characters have. Paul Gordon's music and lyrics are varied, lush, and romantically expressive, while also offering a few recurring musical themes and repetitive phrases that are memorable. The combination of Caird's expressive book and Gordon's well-crafted lyrics allows us to clearly see how both Jerusha and Jervis change and grow from their atypical relationship, Jerusha's emotionally rich letters, and their several humorous encounters. The only drawback in the show is that the plot is fairly predictable and the characters are ones you've most likely seen before in other shows, books, or films, where there is a headstrong young, poor girl and a rich, slightly older, and somewhat reserved man who comes into her life. Fortunately, even with those small shortcomings, the characters are interesting, there are some fun plot twists, and the ending, while predictable, is touching and incredibly well done.
Kathlynn Rodin is exceptional as Jerusha, the curious, animated, excitable, and adventurous young woman who finally feels like she has someone, or some form of a family, to belong to with her relationship with Daddy Long Legs. Rodin exquisitely provides the appropriate levels of naiveté, pain and suffering one would expect from a female orphan who only realizes how uneducated she is and how sheltered her life was once she is around richer, educated girls in college. Rodin also expertly exhibits the sheer amount of joy, strength and determination of a "modern" woman and budding feminist, once she realizes what this chance of an education affords her. Rodin beautifully portrays the range of emotions of Jerusha, from the charismatic young, headstrong woman who finds her voice as she comes of age and learns of the vast expanse of the world around her to the anguished girl who realizes she isn't quite that independent when Jervis demands she isn't allowed to go away for the summer due to his own jealousy.
James D. Gish is equally as good as Jervis, the somewhat reserved man who finds himself so intrigued by the woman writing him letters that he's missing business meetings to read them. Gish does a good job of depicting the hard time Jervis has expressing his feelings and the uncertainty of the character's actions, due to his deceitfulness in pretending to be someone he isn't, while reading letters Jerusha writes intimately detailing her encounters with the man he actually is. Gish provides a nice level of humor in the role as well in the bits of jealousy Jervis feels once Jerusha writes several times about her encounters with the brother of a college friend. Also, while Jervis is a fairly uncomplicated character, and there are many moments when Gish is sitting quietly on stage simply reacting to something in Jerusha's letters, the emotions he feels and the complications he brings to the relationship with Jerusha are beautifully detailed in Gish's expressive facial reactions and body language.
Director Robert Kolby Harper does a wonderful job deriving rich, warm, natural, and expressive performances from Rodin and Gish and his staging of the action works quite well for the small space to ensure there is a deep, realistic connection between his two actors. Randi Ellen Rudolph makes an auspicious Phoenix Theatre debut with her music direction which achieves soaring notes from Rodin and Gish's gorgeous voices, including beautiful harmonies, and rich sounds from the small orchestra. Aaron Jackson's set design is fairly static, but effectively depicts the time of the piece with period furniture and a creative way to connect the letters to the set with pieces of parchment hanging from the branches of the trees outside Jarvis' office that resemble the leaves on the tree. Dallas Nichols' video designs work very well to depict the letters while also adding pops of color and movement as they are projected on a large tilted screen that resembles a piece of paper, where beautiful watercolor paintings show drawings to depict the several locations in the plot, along with the dates and details of the letters Jerusha writes. The gorgeous costumes from Connie Furr are rich in detail and textures, and Ashton Corey's lighting delivers a wide range of beautiful colors, warmth and tone to help delineate the change in season and setting.
Daddy Long Legs may have a predictable and fairly uncomplicated story, but with characters that are realistic and amusing, a wonderful book and score, and a production that has expert direction and an excellent cast, it makes for a rousing and winning production filled with romance, wit and charm.
Daddy Long Legs runs through July 18, 2021, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151
Director: Robert Kolby Harper
* Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the US