Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Daddy Long Legs
Also see Garrett's review of A Night with Janis Joplin
Set in turn-of-the-century New England, the story follows Jerusha Abbott (Hilary Maiberger, seemingly custom-made for this role), who has grown up in the John Grier Home for Children. Now coming of age, she faces the prospect of leaving the orphanageor worse, spending her life working there. But one of the trustees sees potential in her essays and mysteriously offers to pay for her to attend college, under the condition that she write to his pseudonym monthly, though he is clear he won't respond. A fleeting glimpse of this benefactor gives her an inaccurate impression, and she imagines him as an older man, whom she insouciantly nicknames "Daddy Long Legs" because of his lanky figure. It may not be a complete surprise that this man, a certain Jervis Pendelton, invested with great charisma and dynamism by Max Chernin, will begin to fall in love with strong-willed Jerusha, forcing him to rethink his original conditions for their relationship.
Paul Gordon served as both composer and lyricist for this show, and his strongly integrated score has many lovely moments. Mr. Gordon was Tony-nominated in 2000 for his score for Jane Eyre; prior to that, he wrote pop music, including the 1986 hit, "The Next Time I Fall," sung by Peter Cetera and Amy Grant. This score has no shortage of beautiful ballads but a more folksy than pop sensibility. "I'm a Beast," sung first by Jerusha after feeling sorry for writing an aggressively angry letter to her benefactor, and later reprised by Jervis, is not a particularly attractive title, but it holds one of the more beautiful melodies and poignant lyrics of the show. "Charity," Jervis's moving eleven o'clock number, is another standout, but the true highlight of the score is "The Secret of Happiness," which could well emerge as a standard for cabaret singers.
The adapted book by John Caird, which won a Drama Desk award in 2016, capably distills this story down to its two main characters and manages to keep things lively even though a great deal of the speaking and singing amounts to the recitation of letters. It preserves Jean Webster's feminist themes and delivers a strong female protagonist who might be a cousin to the aforementioned Annie or Amalia Balash in She Loves Me, another show whose plot is driven by an exchange of letters. There is even a bit of My Fair Lady here, with another older gentleman assisting a younger women of little means until she outstrips him. If anything is lacking in this story, it is a clearer understanding of why Mr. Pendleton began helping orphans in the first place and why he abruptly settled on Jerusha, after having sponsored only boys.
Director Megan McGinnis clearly knows this show intimately, having won acclaim as the originator of the role of Jerusha all the way through to its Off-Broadway run. She skillfully maneuvers these two characters around Chris Bernier's early 20th century study, allowing us to understand them in two completely different spaces even as they stand only feet from each other. Christina Munich's lighting design reconfigures the set through alternating shadow and brightness; a particularly effective moment comes early, when Jervis's figure is obscured, encouraging us to view him through Jerusha's distorted assumptions before we learn otherwise.
The show feels a bit dated in its treatment of male/female relationshipsit may be difficult to accept Jerusha's ultimate regard for Jervis after all his manipulations. The pleasure in Daddy Long Legs, in fact, comes in watching this woman explore a widening world. It is no wonder that by the end, her letters have become the wallpaper of Jervis's library.
Daddy Long Legs, through May 27, 2018, by Theatre Raleigh at the Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theatreraleigh.com or by phone at 919-832-9997.
Music and Lyrics: Paul Gordon