Daddy Long Legs
The creative minds behind Broadway's Jane Eyre are giving musical life to another literary orphan off-Broadway at the 149-seat Davenport Theatre. The Tony-nominated team of director and librettist John Caird and composer Paul Gordon are familiar with page-to-stage projects. Though Jerusha Abbott, the protagonist of their two-hander Daddy Long Legs (based on Jean Webster's 1912 novel, which later became the loosely adapted 1955 film with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron), offers them far less emotionally fraught material than did Charlotte Brontë's famously spirited heroine. Rather than a fiery saga underlined with a passionate romance, Daddy Long Legs is a sweet love story on the backdrop of a spunky young girl's coming of age. A heartwarming musical may not be the most in-vogue, but Caird and Gordon embrace the preciousness of Webster's story with no apologies, building an unchallenging yet satisfying romance filled with soothing melodies and a quick wit.
Megan McGinnis stars as the relentlessly optimistic Jerusha Abbott, reprising the role she's been performing around the country since 2009. She introduces herself in the opening number as "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home." An orphan from birth, the name "Jerusha" was taken from a gravestone while "Abbott" was pulled from the first page of a phone book. Still, none of life's misfortunes can dampen her naïve spirits. She's the kind of orphan found only in fairy tales or young-adult literature, but McGinnis wears the part well with an ear-to-ear grin that radiates from her core and a smooth soprano as spotless as her porcelain skin. Her sunny disposition would be insufferable if it weren't for Caird's sophisticated zingers that put some pluck behind her impenetrable enthusiasm.
Jerusha's story begins when one of John Grier's wealthy trustees, who has noticed her promise as a writer, decides to anonymously finance her college education. In exchange, she must write to him once a month, though with no expectation that her letters will ever be read and certainly with no expectation to receive a response. Jerusha has never seen the man, except for his lanky shadow, which looks to her like a daddy-long-legs spider — hence the pseudonym she gives him in place of the dull John Smith alias he initially requests. The rest of his appearance she fills in with her imagination, assuming him to be a bald octogenarian, while in fact he is the young Jervis Pendleton (played by Paul Alexander Nolan), whose niece is one of Jerusha's schoolmates. As Pendleton becomes increasingly intrigued by the girl in the letters, he decides to get to know her as Jervis while keeping secret his identity as "Daddy" (a slightly discomfiting title as their romance blossoms).
Except for Jervis' moments of private reflection, the majority of the story is narrated by Jerusha's letters, which detail her emotional and intellectual growth through school and her encounters with Jervis. The dramatic exercise smacks of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, though with the added challenge of developing a relationship through a correspondence that is largely one-sided. Caird builds in a few touching moments of interaction, but for the most part, Nolan is quarantined upstage in an elegant library fit for Henry Higgins, while McGinnis dwells downstage among a sea of chests holding progressively more sophisticated dresses to suit the 20th-century woman of culture she is becoming (period-appropriate sets and costumes designed by David Farley).
The physical distance our lovers are required to maintain is one of the show's biggest hurdles, for which Caird finds creative solutions. The two typically read Jerusha's letters in tandem, giving them small opportunities to build chemistry through these unknowingly shared moments. With each letter, McGinnis brings Jerusha a greater air of worldliness and sophistication while Nolan thaws the heart of his stoically dignified character, until the two gently meet in the middle. The greatest impediment to their epistolary chemistry is the plot's crawling pace. Each letter nudges their relationship along, but rather than building layers of tension, the musical proves too slight to hold up under the burden of its two hefty acts. The melodies, though sung beautifully by Nolan and McGinnis, begin to bleed into one another as their courtship drags on at a snail's pace. Instead of anticipating the cathartic release of a romantic comedy's last-scene reveal, we impatiently wait for the moment when we can finally abandon the third-person prose.