Her Life Belongs to Daddy

25. January, 2010 Theater No comments

Ninth show of 2010: Daddy Long Legs, TheatreWorks, January 24.

Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Daddy Long Legs. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

TheatreWorks’ last world premiere musical had four people in it, but the theater’s latest new musical Daddy Long Legs outdoes last year’s Tinyard Hill in economy with only two actors. Like ACT’s Phédre, it’s a world premiere coproduction that actually premiered elsewhere. In this case TheatreWorks gets Daddy Long Legs after Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA, but before Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Music and lyrics are by Paul Gordon, composer and lyricist of past TheatreWorks musicals Jane Eyre and Emma, the latter of which had a successful world premiere for the company and then went on to other regional theaters. It’s written and directed by John Caird, Tony-winning codirector (with Trevor Nunn) of the original Royal Shakespeare Company productions Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables and past collaborator with Gordon on Jane Eyre.

Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs has been adapted into at least five movies: with Mary Pickford in 1919, with Janet Gaynor in 1931, a 1955 musical version with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, a 2005 South Korean flick, and more loosely in the 1935 Shirley Temple movie Curly Top. It’s even been a stage musical before, 1952’s Love from Judy.

In an orphanage called the John Grier Home, teenage orphan Jerusha Abbott is told that an unknown philanthropist has noticed her talent in writing and decided to pay for her to go to college, plus an allowance to support her during her studies. In return she must write him letters on a regular basis, not because he has any interest in reading them but simply to hone her writing style. The only name she’s given for him is the obvious pseudonym Mr. John Smith, but she caught a glimpse of the tall man from behind as he left the orphanage, so she nicknames him Daddy Long Legs.

Despite a near complete lack of the common cultural references that her classmates take for granted, Jerusha thrives in college, reading voraciously and coming into herself. She strikes up a friendship with Jervis Pendleton, the uncle of one of her high-born classmates, but rejects his marriage proposal because she thinks he’ll come to regret it, as he’s of a rich family and she’s of no family at all. Eventually it’s revealed that Jervis has been her Daddy Long Legs all along.

In the new musical we know who Daddy is before she even meets Jervis. The only two characters shown are Jerusha and Jervis, and we see him reading her letters as she writes them. Despite his clearly stated initial disinterest in her as anything but a promising young mind, he quickly finds himself enchanted by her spunk and imagination in the letters she never intended to read, and while he’s been very clear that he’ll never respond to her letters, he takes advantage of the family connection to pay her a visit, and quickly falls in love with her. Under the guise of an imaginary secretary, he issues her stern and capricious commands whenever she shows interest in spending time around another man or in gaining any other form of income that might reduce his influence. Fortunately she rebels at his tyranny, even if her first battleground of where to go over her summer vacation seems a bit petty.

It’s an inherently creepy premise, because he’s using his wealth and influence to mold his own mate, arranging her education and even her summers away. To cut down on the ickiness, the musical makes Jervis much younger than in previous versions, where he’s been as much as 30 years older, and in fact makes a big deal about it. Jerusha imagines Daddy Long Legs to be a very old man, and the young and strapping Jervis sings in amusement about her mistake. Although he’s the uncle of a classmate of hers, he’s a very young uncle, her father’s youngest brother. It also makes a point of showing that this was never the plan, that he got sucked in despite himself and regrets his deception even as he furthers it.

That said, when Jerusha finally meets Jervis she writes (and sings) breathlessly to Daddy, “Oh what a man, I’ll never forget. But really the only man I’ve ever met.” It’s funny of course, and charming, but it’s also unsettling on a number of levels to think that he’s her only example of manhood and also her only confidant, without her even knowing the two are the same. Not only is it a violation of her trust and dependence, but talk about stacking the deck!

Robert Adelman Hancock is an amusingly stodgy and haughty Jervis, and he does indeed have long legs. Megan McGinnis makes it easy to see what he sees in Jerusha, bright and playful with an infectious enthusiasm. Both have clear and pleasant voices, and sing their parts well.

As they sing a little, speak a little and then sing some more, the songs tend to blend in with each other. Many short reprises exacerbate the impression that the songs are rather similar. They do, on the other hand, have clear if often humdrum melodies, and none of the meandering meter that so many new musicals have nowadays. They’re sweetly flowing and forgettable.

Gordon’s lyrics are sharper than his music, albeit sometimes rife with double meanings that may or may not be intentional. When Jerusha sings, early on, “I feel like I belong to somebody now,” it’s hard not to read plain old ownership into that, and her sincerely apologetic song “I’m a Beast,” with lines like “Daddy, I’m no good at being bad” and “I want so much to impress,” is just begging to be taken out of context. Also, I couldn’t help wondering if they really used the phrase “living in the now” a hundred years ago.

There’s no dialogue between the two until the very end—nor even does she recount conversations in her letters, except in broadest summary. The spoken text consists of monologues: her descriptions of what she’s up to and his reactions to them either to himself, in letters he’ll never send or in hastily written dispatches—not from the elusive Mr. Smith but either as his fictional secretary or under his own name.

Somewhat reminiscent of TheatreWorks’ set for The Chosen on the same stage, designer David Farley’s austere dark wood room features ceiling-high library bookshelves and a half-dozen travel chests placed around the floor. Jervis usually sits at a writing desk in his library while Jerusha dwells downstage among the chests and gradually mounting stacks of schoolbooks. Floridly handwritten projections give the place and date of each of her letters, which gradually get pinned up all over his bookshelves. Eventually the windows are opened, injecting some life into the stuffy interior.

Much as Jervis can’t resist loving the orphan he never intended to meet, this funny, sprightly musical manages to win over a critical viewer despite everything—despite the lack of interaction, or indeed of action, for most of its two and a half hours, and despite the problematic premise that Gordon and Caird have done so much to soften an acknowledge at the same time. As long as you don’t look too closely at the love story, it’s a charmer.

Daddy Long Legs
Through February 14
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA

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