By Karen Isaacs
Too many people forget about the often delightful musicals offered off-Broadway at lower prices. You may not get the extravaganzas and huge special effects but you do get an intimate and often personal theater going experience.
Daddy Long Legs is a charming musical featuring just two talented performers, one flexible set and performed in a small theater on West 45th Street less than a block away from the blockbusters.
The title may sound familiar to you. Those who are older, or are old movie buffs, may remember the 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron (pre Gigi). It produced the pop hit “Something’s Gotta Give.” But that wasn’t the first nor last film made from the original novel.
The novel –with the same title — was written in 1912 by Jean Webster. The novel is epistolary – it is told in letters written by the heroine to the man she calls “Daddy Long Legs.”
The plot may sound both simple and unrealistic: Jerusha Abbott has spent her entire life in an orphanage and now at 17 is more working at the orphanage than anything else. She is surprised when she is told that a trustee will send her to college so she can become a writer. The only stipulations: she must never express gratitude, she must write him a letter every month but she will never receive a response, and he will be known as Mr. Smith. She thinks she has glimpsed the shadow of the man who has made this possible, and because he appears tall, she nicknames him “Daddy Long Legs.”
The novel – which I have actually read – is her letters to him. She tries to imagine him and is convinced he is elderly; she asks questions though knowing she will not get a response; and she blossoms academically and as a writer. She also gets frustrated at the one-sided nature of the relationship.
By the end of the novel, Jerusha has graduated and has a novel about the orphanage about to be published. She has also fallen in love and discovers that the man she loves, is, in fact Mr. Smith, the uncle (but not that much older) of one of her college friends.
In the Astaire movie – certain liberties were taken with the novel. The setting was moved to the early 1950s and Jerusha became Julie Andre, a former orphan still working in a French orphanage. A variety of other characters were added including “Mr. Smith’s” crusty lawyer (Fred Clark), wise-cracking secretary (Thelma Ritter), Julie’s college roommates and the brother of one of them and other.
The musical now playing off-Broadway, after successful productions in Canada and London’s West End among others, reverts to the early 20th century time period. The excess characters are eliminated on stage – we only hear about her two college friends and the brother of one from her letters to “Mr. Smith.”
Megan McGuiness is a charming Jerusha with a lovely voice. She is front and center for a large part of the show and McGuiness shows us Jerusha’s maturation from uncertain teenager who realizes how much she has missed out on during her childhood to a confident young woman who knows her own mind and has belief in her talents.
Paul Alexander Nolan is Jervis Pendelton (Mr. Smith), the not-very-old trustee of the orphanage who funds Jerusha’s education. Nolan also creates a multi-faceted person though the role is less fully developed. We get hints that Jervis is the black sheep of his wealthy NYC family, has been deeply emotionally hurt in the past, has funded the education of young men before, and rejects many of the conservative and materialistic values. He too has a terrific voice.
There are a few moments where either Nolan or director John Caird allows Jervis too go a little too far and too childlike. It works when he is recalling his days as boy but it seems too much during some scenes with Jerusha.
John Caird, who won Tony’s for his directing of Nicholas Nickley and Les Miz, has not only directed and written the book. Despite my one quibble, he manages to make sure this piece is not static. Since the two characters only meet a few times during the course of the show, it easily could lack movement; Caird makes sure it doesn’t.
The music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (he wrote and was nominated for a Tony for Jane Eyre) has composed a score that is reminiscent of the period. He created a love letter to NYC, “My Manhattan” for Jervis to sing as well as some other hummable songs – “I Have Torn You from My Heart,” “I Couldn’t Know Someone Less,” “The Man I’ll Never Be,” and others.
If I had one complaint that may be with the sound design is that at time when both Jervis and Jerusha are singing, he can sometimes barely be heard. I’m looking forward to the cast CD to more fully appreciate the score.
David Farley has created a multi-level set lined with books. It looks almost like a garret in a Victorian mansion. A variety of old trunks are moved about to create benches, a desk and even a bed for different scenes. The two levels allow Jerusha and Jarvis to have separate playing areas while in relatively close quarters. His costumes set the early 20th century perfectly. Paul Toben’s lighting design effectively changes the mood of the piece from the darker orphanage to the summer light of Jerusha’s vacations on a farm.
Daddy Long Legs is at the Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street through January 10. Tickets are available Telecharge