BWW Review: DADDY LONG LEGS Blends the Sweet and Strange at Pittsburgh Public
You can't talk about Daddy Long Legs in bullet points, or it sounds creepy. "So, there's an orphan girl who gets sponsored by this older man, and he pays all her bills and makes her write him letters, but he's in love with her kinda, so he manipulates her from afar to make her love him, kinda?" Taken in the abstract, it's all too easy for the show to come across as a perverse, misogynist joke. How wonderful that, in context, it is anything but. There's no denying that Daddy Long Legs is a challenging show- certainly challenging to produce, challenging to perform, and challenging for audiences to process. It blends genres wildly, and indulges in a certain amount of mood whiplash. And yet, when it works (as it does in Ted Pappas's compact production), it really works.
Set in turn of the century New York, the musical, which features book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, tells the story of Jerusha (Danielle Bowen), a witty but undereducated orphan who has reached legal age without adoption. Out of misplaced charitable impulse, orphanage board member Jervis Pendleton (Allan Snyder) sponsors the promising young woman's college education. His requirements: she must write to him and detail her progress, must follow his every order should he issue any, and must, above all, expect no personal contact. Jerusha's letters lead Jervis to feel affection, and then attraction, to a girl he has never met- one who views her distant "Daddy Long Legs" as an elderly, paternal figure and not as a wealthy younger man just shy of middle age.
I spent much of the drive home pondering exactly what genre Daddy Long Legs belongs to. The obvious answer was chamber musical, with its unit set, two-person cast and three-member orchestra. But chamber musical is a form, not a genre. Calling it a romantic comedy isn't wrong, but does not well define the extended philosophical divergences as Jerusha discovers early feminism, socialism and eventually Fabianism. It diverges into farce for several delightful moments, as Pendleton struggles to play both roles as Jervis and Daddy simultaneously. There are even flickers (thankfully only flickers) of pure post-Victorian melodrama, complete with tears and flowers and passionate letters composed in an emotional turmoil. Perhaps, if nothing else, Daddy Long Legs is simply a modern musical, not beholden to prescriptive rules about what it is or is not. (It's certainly a better reimagining of the Beauty and the Beast story than the Fifty Shades trilogy is!)
As Jerusha, Danielle Bowen has the larger and showier role, aging from a naive and tempestuous teenager to a mature and socially progressive woman over the course of the play. Her voice has the quintessential "Disney princess" quality, that blend of classical training with modern technique. Given how much of the show rests on her shoulders, it's a wonder that she carries off the character with as little apparent effort as she does; her performance feels paradoxically both light and lived in, never once feeling like the pillar on which a weighty show balances.
Attention must be paid, however, to Allan Snyder, giving a superb comic performance as Jervis Pendleton. Given that this is a character WHO literally manipulates a much younger woman and buys her affection, a lesser actor would find it difficult to make the character appealing. Snyder, however, finds the charm in Jervis by emphasizing the cracks in his facade- his awkwardness even when alone, his vanity, and his loose-limbed, occasionally flailing, physicality. Leaning on the metaphor again, this is no steely ChristIan Grey breaking a young woman to his will, but a lovable misfit forever balanced between ego and insecurity. (That Caird's book and Gordon's lyrics emphasize Jerusha being potentially quite a bit smarter than the witty but secretly lowbrow Jervis- whose prized sentimental possession is a chest of boyhood adventure tales- also helps to balance this peculiar romance.)
Paul Gordon's score for piano, cello and acoustic guitar is pleasant if not immediately distinctive; the orchestrations, in fact, stand out more than any specific melody in the show. Very much in the style of Next to Normal in orchestration and compositional genre, the music builds a musical theatre sound rooted in Contemporary Stage sounds but with streaks of folk and country braided in. The earthy, folky sound of the show occasionally butts up against the material in peculiar ways: Snyder has the hardest task in the show to sell a John Mayer-ish blues number as his city slicker character.
All in all, like so many of Ted Pappas's picks for the Public, Daddy Long Legs is a show that does not work on paper, that should not work in practice... but which, undeniably, works. Pappas excels at making fascinating, cerebral theatre out of works that don't always lend themselves to such close analysis (see also: The Fantasticks, earlier this season), and his touch will be sorely missed after his retirement. In closing, I offer the thoughts of two teenage girls I am acquainted with, who told me their thoughts on the show a few days after they saw it. Girl 1: "It was the most romantic thing I've ever seen, and Jerusha is my dream role now!" Girl 2: "I'm a little creeped out by how much I wasn't creeped out by Jervis Pendleton."