BWW Reviews: DADDY LONG LEGS Is a Delight

Daddy Long Legs

Music & Lyrics by Paul Gordon, Book by John Caird, Based on the novel by Jean Webster, Directed by John Caird, Musical Direction by Laura Bergquist, Musical Supervision by Brad Haak, Orchestrations by Paul Gordon & Brad Haak, Scenic & Costume Design by David Farley, Lighting Design by Paul Toben, Sound Design by Jonathan Burke, Production Stage Manager Emily F. McMullen, Assistant Stage Manager Peter Crewe

CAST: Megan McGinnis (Jerusha Abbott), Robert Adelman Hancock (Jervis Pendleton)

Performances through March 4 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-543-4MRT (4678) or www.merrimackrep.org

There are two unusual things about the current offering at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. First, it is the East Coast premiere of a touring show, not an original MRT creation, as is the norm for their productions. Second, it is a musical, with a live six-piece orchestra playing in the wings. Although they do not often stage musicals, Merrimack's hallmark elements of a good story and solid production values are intact in this delightful new romantic musical, Daddy Long Legs, written and directed by John Caird, a Tony and Olivier Award-winning director.

Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock reprise the roles they originated for the 2009 World Premiere at California's Rubicon Theatre Company. They wear their characters comfortably, like a pair of shoes that have conformed to the shape of the owners' feet. In no time at all, McGinnis and Hancock manage to transport us to 1908 New England where Jerusha Abbott laments her plight in song as "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," until she is given the most wonderful opportunity. An anonymous benefactor, who calls himself John Smith, offers to pay her way to university in exchange for monthly letters to update him on her progress. His ground rules for the arrangement dictate that he will never respond; nevertheless, Jerusha creates a fantasy figure in her imagination and affectionately addresses him as "Daddy Long Legs," a reference to his physical stature. Although they have not met, she observed a tall, strange man from a distance as he departed the Grier Home on the day he visited and literally changed her future.

Jervis Pendleton, aka John Smith, is in for a surprise when Jerusha's letters start to arrive, showing her to be both charming and inquisitive. As he begins to question his choice to be detached from his winsome beneficiary, fate finds a way for them to meet without his having to divulge the secret of his identity. Coincidentally, his niece is one of Jerusha's college roommates which gives him an excuse to visit the campus and spend time with the girls. More so than from the infrequent outings "Uncle Jervie" shares with Jerusha, Daddy Long Legs comes to know her through her detailed, confessional letters ("Things I Didn't Know," "The Secret of Happiness"), as does the audience. Jervis' revelations are expressed most often as reactions to his burgeoning feelings ("What Does She Mean By Love?") and in his struggle to maintain his distance from Jerusha's magnetic pull ("The Color of Your Eyes"). Gradually, he is transformed from a Henry Higgins-ish manipulator, seeing himself as a do-gooder, to an altruist who genuinely respects and cares for his young protégée. More than one life is altered by his singular act.   

An enchanting love story at heart, Daddy Long Legs manages to seamlessly weave in a political thread that is, unfortunately, recognizable in the modern Zeitgeist. Jerusha and Jervis are from distinctly disparate socioeconomic classes, and it requires his charitable deed for her to advance and fulfill her potential. As she grows in the academic setting, she formulates her political ideals as a socialist and a suffragist and learns to appreciate the power of the pen. From her improved situation, she endeavors to give back by remedying the conditions at the orphanage, providing opportunities for the next generation of impoverished children to escape their plight.

Jean Webster's 1912 novel was written strictly in the form of letters and Daddy Long Legs veers little from that format. There is some spoken dialogue, but it always segues into one of the two dozen songs which are written as letters between Jerusha and Jervis. It is a credit to composer and lyricist Paul Gordon that the beauty of his songs is not diminished by bearing so much of the responsibility to convey the narrative. Rather, I couldn't wait for the next song to begin, to hear how he would move the story forward musically. There is a quality of sameness to the music that is improbably comforting because it expresses the voices of the characters. Both McGinnis and Hancock have exquisite instruments that breathe life into the correspondence between Jerusha and Jervis. When they sing together, in harmony or counterpoint, their voices blend like milk and honey, cascading over the melodic swells of sound from Conductor Laura Bergquist and her coterie of musicians. Sound Designer Jonathan Burke provides a good balance between the vocals and the orchestra.

Daddy Long Legs looks as good as it sounds, thanks to David Farley's fabulous set. Jerusha meanders downstage amidst a mélange of trunks and suitcases, plucking her costumes and books from the luggage, even using a pair of cases for a bed, while Jervis is squirreled away upstage in a cozy office cum library, maintaining his privacy and his deception. Lighting Designer Paul Toben illuminates his area with a banker's lamp on the desk, keeping Daddy Long Legs in the shadows much of the time. In the early stages of the show, I found the downstage dimness of the lighting to be problematic, but it brightens as Jerusha gets out into the world. The set adapts to show new locales by projecting scenes behind the bookcases, such as the college campus, a pastoral view, and the New York City skyline. Farley is also the costume designer, dressing Daddy in a respectable three-piece suit and starched collar. He accessorizes him with a straw boater and a dandy cane when he ventures out from his lair. Jerusha wears long skirts, high collars, the occasional necktie, and an array of aprons and jumpers, and her wardrobe becomes more sophisticated as she proceeds through her four years of school.

Considering that Jerusha and Jervis basically narrate their thoughts and feelings, and that the story is told in their written letters, this conceit would seem to handcuff or limit the characters from being fully realized. However, that potential issue is overcome by Gordon's expressive music and lyrics, the natural connection between McGinnis and Hancock, and the unhurried unfolding of their relationship. As book writer and director, Caird has the advantage of a clear vision of how to stage the play, and guides the actors on their characters' journey of discovery with a gentle touch.

Following the success of their last production, the 1943 play The Voice of the Turtle, MRT mines the early 20th century for source material and strikes gold. Think about bringing your daughters and granddaughters to meet the extremely likeable and capable young female protagonist in this heartwarming musical. Jerusha is undaunted by gender roles, understands the value of working hard to get what you want, and knows the importance of paying it forward. Come to think of it, she's a good role model for the boys, too. Daddy Long Legs is a delight!

Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Robert Adelman Hancock, Megan McGinnis)

 

 

 



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From This Author Nancy Grossman