“An exquisite gem of a musical” is how I described Daddy Long Legs in its world premiere engagement at the Rubicon last year. Since then, Paul Gordon and John Caird’s adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel has had several more engagements across the country, allowing the writers the opportunity for fine-tuning, a must in the creation of any new musical. It’s this adeptly tweaked Daddy Long Legs that returns to Southern California for a three-week engagement at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, an even more polished gem of a musical than it was before, and not just one for the kiddies. Though Webster’s novel fits squarely in the Children’s Books section of your local library or Barnes And Noble, its musical adaptation proves absolutely right for ages eight to eighty.
“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. For Daddy Long Legs The Musical, Gordon and Caird have chosen to 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 disclose 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 very convenient for Jervis when he determines that the time has come to meet the fair Jerusha.)
Gordon and Caird’s decision to tell their story through the eyes of both characters’ proves to be a wise one. 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.
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, and who now have the advantage of having performed together again and again over the past twelve months.
As Jerusha, Megan McGinnis continues to give a performance of sheer enchantment, one which the past year has only made more delightful and emotionally resonant. 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.”
Robert Adelman Hancock has been playing Jervis/John since the Rubicon’s first work-shopping of Daddy Long Legs, over which time the tall, handsome leading man has seen the role of Jervis grow from a supporting one to Jerusha’s equal. The young orphan may still get the greater share of attention in Act One, but after intermission, it’s Jervis/Daddy’s frustration, longing, jealousy, and confusion that allow Hancock to prove himself once again a multitalented star on the rise.
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. The score has undergone considerable fine-turning over the past year, mostly for the better. Act Two’s “I Have Torn You From My Heart” is gone and Act One now ends with the brand new “What Does She Mean By Love?”, which introduces the world “love” into both Jervis’ and Jerusha’s vocabulary for the first time, gives Hancock a great center-stage showcase for his splendid tenor, and works to make the role of Jervis more Jerusha’s equal. At the same time, I miss the half-dozen brief, now excised Act Two reprises, which kept the second act filled with song. Even without them, however, composer/lyricist Gordon’s score remains one of the best of the past few years, his technique of previewing melodies and then bringing them back like old friends an effective one. Making Gordon’s songs sound all the more beautiful is musical director Julie McBride, conducting the production’s excellent six-piece orchestra, featuring McBride on keyboard. The musical accompaniment sounds even more lush the second time around, even with exactly the same number of instruments, Gordon now sharing orchestration credit with newly onboard Brad Haak.
Most of the Rubicon design team is back, led by New York-based scenic and costume designer David Farley, whose deceptively simple though well-appointed library set 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 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. The uncredited sound design is crystal clear. Properties designer T. Theresa Scarano completes the production’s Grade A design team. Christina M. Burke is production manager/stage manager. Nell Balaban is associate director.
I fell in love with Daddy Long Legs last year and remain enchanted a year later by this exquisite gem of a musical—still one of the most enthralling, entertaining, and moving love stories I’ve seen on the American musical theater stage.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
November 6, 2010
Photos: Jeanne Tanner