Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs, a favorite children’s book for nearly a hundred years now, has been turned into an exquisite gem of a musical, and one not just for youngsters. In fact, it’s hard to think of another musical so absolutely right for ages eight to eighty. In the inspired hands of composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and writer-director John Caird, the Rubicon Theatre’s production of Daddy Long Legs proves to be one of the most enthralling, entertaining, and moving love stories I’ve seen on the American musical theater stage.

“Daddy Long Legs,” as readers of the novel will know, is the nickname given by 18-year-old orphan Jerusha Abbott to “John Smith,” the anonymous benefactor who has chosen to finance her college education. A trustee at the John Grier Home For Girls where Jerusha has grown up, “Smith” has agreed to pay her tuition as well as a generous monthly allowance on condition that she write him once a month to keep him posted on her progress as a student and would-be novelist.  He informs Jerusha, however, that he will never reveal his identity to her nor will he ever reply to her letters.

Following its introductory chapter, Webster’s novel is told entirely through Jerusha’s letters to “Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith,” a nickname arrived at from Jerusha’s one glimpse of her benefactor’s elongated shadow.  Only in the final letter does the reader learn the identity of the novel’s titular character, and in fact, Gordon and Caird’s adaptation was originally conceived of as a one-person musical told by a middle-aged Jerusha.

What kind of musical that might have turned out to be is a moot point, the creators having made the wise decision to make Daddy Long Legs a “two-hander.”  We follow Jerusha’s story from both her point of view and that of her patron, and this of course necessitates revealing exactly who “John Smith” is from the get-go. Thus, it is no spoiler to reveal here that Daddy Long Legs is neither old nor gray nor bald, as Jerusha imagines him to be, but instead a tall, handsome young philanthropist named Jervis Pendleton, who happens also to be the wealthy uncle of one of her college classmates. (How convenient for Jervis when he determines that the time has come to meet the fair Jerusha, whose writings have indeed inspired him to sponsor her education, as he has that of many other underprivileged students.)

Gordon and Caird’s decision to feature both Jerusha and Jervis in their musical proves to be a wise one indeed.  True, the element of surprise is lost, but in its place is the far more tantalizing element of romantic suspense.  We very soon realize that Jerusha and Jervis are made for each other, and this knowledge keeps us on the edge of our seats until the moment when, as we all know will happen, Jerusha realizes that the man she has loved on paper and the man she has fallen in love with in real life are one and the same. It worked for us when we watched Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner, or Judy Garland and Van Johnson in In The Good Old Summertime, or Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail.  It worked for us in the oft-revived musical She Loves Me.  It now works equally well in Daddy Long Legs.

Bring your Kleenex, because as many as are the laughs in Caird’s book, your eyes are likely to be wet from start to finish, especially with a score as downright gorgeous as the one Gordon has written, and actors as superb as the pair who have been cast in the leading roles.

Giving a performance of sheer enchantment as Jerusha is Megan McGinnis, a young actress whose TV career goes back to pre-teen appearances on Dear John, Wings, and a recurring role on Blossom, and whose Broadway credits include the original cast of Parade, a year as Belle in Beauty And The Beast, and originating the role of Beth in Broadway’s Little Women The Musical. (How’s that for a résumé?) With her curly locks pulled primly back, her wide eyes brimming with intelligence, humor, and spunk, and a voice of angelic beauty, McGinnis is simply unforgettable as “the oldest orphan in the John Greer Home.”

Hancock, featured recently in the Rubicon’s Fiddler On The Roof and as Sky in the National Tour of Mamma Mia, proves to be an equally fine choice for Jervis.  Since playing the title role in the Rubicon’s workshopping of Daddy Long Legs, the tall, handsome Hancock has seen the role of Jervis grow from a supporting one to Jerusha’s equal. The first act may belong to the young orphan, but after intermission, it’s Jervis/Daddy’s frustration, longing, jealousy, and confusion that gives Hancock a role to really sink his teeth into and one that could well propel him to Broadway leading man status.

I fell in love with Gordon’s songs for Daddy Long Legs when I first heard a demo CD of the pre-Rubicon workshop score about a year ago. The Tony-nominated composer of Broadway’s Jane Eyre creates melodies that are tuneful without being saccharine and complex without being inaccessible. His lyrics are charming, clever, and touching.  Since the demo CD, Gordon has cut one song, refined the rest, and added a few others, to create one of the best new scores of the year.  It’s also one that audiences are likely to leave the theater humming, as Gordon reprises songs once, twice, even three times (with new lyrics to match the characters’ altered circumstances).  Melodies return as old friends, a technique which other musical theater composers would do well to emulate.  Making Gordon’s songs sound all the more beautiful is musical director Laura Bergquist, conducting the production’s six-piece orchestra, featuring Bergquist on keyboard. 

Caird’s book manages to turn a novel most appropriate to junior high-aged girls into a musical love story pretty much as adult as say Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, yet one that middle schoolers will love as much as they have the novel. Like TL5Y, Daddy Long Legs is a musical I could see again and again, and hopefully will in coming years.  It had me on the edge of my seat, smiling and wiping tears away from start to finish.

For the World Premiere production, the Rubicon has brought together the best of East and West Coast design talent. Scenic and costume designer David Farley (who performed the same double-duty on Broadway in 13 and the most recent revivals of Sunday In The Park With George and A Little Night Music) has created a deceptively simple though well-appointed library set which does wondrous things as the evening progresses.  His costumes for Jerusha are a perfect early 20th Century blend of tweediness and femininity, and Jervis’s duds are deliciously fuddy-duddy as befits the character. Paul Toben, who designed lighting for the recent Broadway musical The Story Of My Life shows here why he’s one of the Big Apple’s brightest new lighting design talents with his exquisite work here.  Since most scenes in Daddy Long Legs take place simultaneously in two different locations, Toben has effectively created two different lighting plots for each of these scenes.  He’s also conspired with Farley for some design surprises which transport us to unexpected places. Jonathan Burke’s many outstanding sound designs at the Rubicon and Cabrillo Music Theater have proven him one of the Southland’s top sound artists, and his work here confirms that once again, as he mixes McGinnis and Hancock’s voices and the production’s six-piece orchestra to perfection. T. Theresa Scarano and the Rubicon’s hair and makeup guru David Reynoso complete the production’s Grade A design team.

Over the past few years, since the unforgettable Ovation-winning West Coast Premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, the Rubicon has made a name for itself presenting world-class musical productions, including last season’s much-lauded Fiddler On The Roof.  It has also been the home for over a dozen world premieres in its twelve years of existence.  With Daddy Long Legs, the Rubicon hits a double bull’s-eye, a World Premiere musical sure to have a long life ahead of it. I have fallen in love with Daddy Long Legs.  Trust me. You will too.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
October 17, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Jeanne Tanner

Comments are closed.