by Samuel L. Leiter
Epistolary plays—like Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar, A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters, and Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth—are far less common than epistolary novels. Perhaps that’s because of the difficulty in developing and maintaining a strong dramatic focus through the reading of letters over a period of time during which the correspondents read their words to an audience rather than directly to one another. This problem is only partially solved in Daddy Long Legs, a sweet but too-frequently static, two-actor chamber musical adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel. The beat of its schmaltzily old-fashioned romantic heart has been strong enough to inspire a handful of films, including a 1955 musical starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. (Some may see resemblances to such musicals as She Loves Me and My Fair Lady.)
In their not-so-new version (it premiered in Los Angeles in 2009 and has received several other productions, including one in London), book writer and director John Caird (co-director and co-adaptor of Les Misérables) and composer-lyricist Paul Gordon (Tony nominated for Jane Eyre) have remained faithful to Webster’s sentimental story. It’s about 18-year-old orphan Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis) at the grim John Grier Home for Orphans, who learns that—although he’s never seen her—an anonymous trustee (the pseudonymous Mr. Smith) has chosen to subsidize her college education so that she may become a writer. He—a wealthy, handsome socialite in his 30s named Jervis Pendleton (Paul Alexander Nolan)—provides a list of requirements, including that she must write to him regularly but never expect a reply.
Thrilled, the eternally sunny, if wistful, Pollyanna-ish heroine writes letter after letter to the man she calls Daddy Long Legs because of the spidery impression his shadow cast when she first spotted him leaving the orphanage. Clearly imagining him as a father (or grandfather) figure—she constantly calls him “Daddy”—she’s obsessed with his looks, conceiving him as old, gray, or bald. Her charming missives, which are read and sung aloud by both characters, tell us of the wonderful education she’s receiving (as she evolves from naïf to summa cum laude valedictorian), of her friendships, of her emotional highs and lows, and, most interestingly and amusingly, of her rejection of fundamentalist religion and her emerging socialist (Fabian) and feminist leanings at a time when women still didn’t have the vote.
Gradually, Jervis (himself a socialist) finds himself falling in love, and even meets Jerusha as himself but never reveals that he’s her benefactor. It doesn’t take long to figure out where all this is going, and, after an overlong nearly two and a half hours broken by an intermission, Jervis’s lily-livered wavering can go no further. Creepy as his behavior has been (on several levels, not least the Freudian), all comes to a satisfactorily mushy conclusion, bringing the tearstained spectators to their feet.
Until the end, when the foundling and her Dutch uncle finally meet, the lines and lyrics are directed at us, and, except when Jervis is writing on his own behalf in the guise of his secretary, we hear his voice only when he’s reiterating what Jerusha has written, which sometimes proves confusing. The contrived situation is interesting up to a certain point, after which it becomes a matter of diminishing returns as you wait impatiently for the inevitable resolution.
The setting is an attractive, dark-paneled library (designed by David Farley, who also did the delightfully authentic period costumes) of floor to ceiling books (on whose shelves Jervis pins Jerusha’s letters); there’s a desk on a low platform at stage right, and the planked flooring below is filled with an assortment of battered steamer trunks that can be swiftly rearranged to suggest settings, like the top of a hill. Paul Toben’s lighting (adapted by Corey Pattak) captures the shifting moods, taking full advantage of the opportunities when hidden windows eventually are revealed. Projections in early 20th century penmanship scrawl times and places across the bookshelves, behind which the three-person band (keyboard, guitars, cello) conducted by Brad Haak is hidden.
Gordon’s score, while pleasantly melodic and listenable, too often acts as generic underpinning to narrative lyrics, making one song sound like any other, although a few, like Jervis’s touching “Charity,” make an impression. There are, however, very few echoes of the kind of music popular in the pre-World War I years, which, given the show’s textual and visual authenticity, seems a shame.
The sylph-like Megan McGinnis, her hair a sea of ringlets, has been with the show throughout its off and on peregrinations but is commendably fresh and appealing, although you may find that Jerusha’s relentless optimism, spunkiness, and winsome smiling have their limits; it’s almost a relief to see her break into tears near the end. As Jervis, Paul Alexander Nolan is suitably attractive and demonstrates an engaging tenor, but his is an unenviably problematic role, and Nolan’s often stagey speech isn’t much help in making us love him as we do Jerusha.
An older audience seemed to eat up Daddy Long Legs when I attended, but I suspect its strongest appeal remains with female young adults. Perhaps those titular legs might grow even longer if it were marketed at them.
Daddy Long Legs
354 West 45th Street, NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).