Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock star in the TheatreWorks premiere of
Daddy Long Legs, a new musical. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.
There’s a joke about being huge in Japan, but in the case of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs, it’s quite true. The novel continues to be a big hit in Japan and in England as well. Why? Perhaps it’s Webster’s strong feminist (for the early 20th century anyway) take on life. She’s strident but with charm.
The latest incarnation of Webster’s story – after her own stage adaptation, countless movie versions (including the most famous with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in 1955), a British stage musical and made-for-Japanese-TV movies – is a new chamber musical from the team of Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (book and direction). These are the guys who partnered so memorably on Jane Eyre (a Broadway flop but a hit for TheatreWorks) and Emma (a big, big hit for TheatreWorks), and they return to TheatreWorks with Daddy Long Legs, a co-production with Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura (where the show made its initial bow) and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (the final stop after Mountain View).
I interviewed Caird and Gordon for Theatre Bay Area magazine. Read the story here.
The TheatreWorks production is completely delightful – if you’re a musical theatre fan. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t appreciate being sung at for 2 ½ hours having a good time here, but what’s surprising in Caird’s production is the way he keeps the stage lively with only two people singing and not interacting face to face until the end. Like Webster’s book, this is an epistolary story. Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is the oldest orphan in the orphanage, and her spunk has been noticed by a benefactor who volunteers to pay for her college education. The donor wishes to remain anonymous, but Jerusha catches a glimpse of his long, leggy shadow and comes up with the nickname Daddy Long Legs.
Unlike Webster’s book, the musical allows us to hear from the benefactor, Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock) through letters to Jerusha he writes but never sends. Through a bit of duplicity, Jervis actually meets Jerusha, but she remains unaware that he’s anything but a roommate’s uncle. What was creepy in the Astaire-Caron movie (the age difference was a game killer in spite of Astaire’s considerable charms) is a non-issue here. Jerusha thinks her “daddy” is an ancient money bags type, when in reality he’s sort of a hot, young money bags type. Their fated hook-up is actually welcome rather than cringe inducing.
There’s a certain sameness to Gordon’s appealing pop-folk-show tune score, but luckily the sound is quite pleasant even if you can’t always tell one song from another. The inevitable romantic ending cries out for a full-out show tune duet, but Gordon keeps things fairly low key, and music director Laura Bergquist (along with her warm, inviting six-piece band paying Gordon’s own orchestrations) never fails him in terms of keeping momentum and emotion pouring from the orchestra pit.
Though not as sparkling as Emma, Daddy Long Legs has tremendous charm, and much of it emanates from McGinnis, who is perfectly cast as the smart and lively Jerusha. Hancock provides a nice foil for her (along with some lovely harmonies), but the show really belongs to McGinnis, whose attractive voice and endearing manner really give this Daddy legs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Daddy Long Legs continues through Feb. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $34 to $67. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.