Theatre Raleigh’s current production of Daddy Long Legs, directed by Megan McGinnis, who originated the central role of Jerusha Abbott in the show’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, is a sparkling gem, a delightful way to spend an evening. Based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, Daddy Long Legs is a two-character musical (with book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon) that chronicles a five-year span in the lives of Jerusha Abbott, “the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home,” and her anonymous benefactor whom she has nicknamed “Daddy Long Legs,” because her only glimpse of him was the long shadow that he had cast in the beam of a car’s headlights.
“Daddy Long Legs” is a trustee of the orphanage who has been impressed by some of Jerusha’s writings. Identifying himself only as “Mr. Smith,” he has arranged to pay for her college education, provided that she educates herself to become a writer and that she writes to him monthly to describe her new-found life. He has further stipulated that he will never write back and that Jerusha must follow every order that he might issue. We soon learn that “Smith’s” real name is Jervis Pendleton, that he is much younger than Jerusha imagines (which is a recurring source of comic moments), and that he is enchanted by the wit and charm in her letters.
With each letter he receives, his enchantment grows. At the same time, Jerusha’s curiosity about him has been growing. Jervis eventually arranges to meet her, but does not disclose that he is the mysterious Mr. Smith. There is an immediate chemistry between them that neither feels able to acknowledge publicly.
Much of the play’s charm is in the fact that a great deal of the story is conveyed through the texts of Jerusha’s letters to “Smith.” Sometimes, she sings them as she writes; sometimes, he sings them as he reads; occasionally, they shift back and forth. And even when the characters speak rather than sing, the dialogue has a lyrical quality, thereby enhancing the charm.
Perfectly suited for the role of Jerusha, the perky Hilary Maiberger imbues her voice with every nuance needed to convey the various emotions and attitudes in her letters, even to the point of wryly slipping in a variety of subtexts. Through her expressions, her stage presence, and her body language, she captures the awe, the sheer wonder that Jerusha experiences as her world expands beyond the limits of the orphanage. (Side Note: We were immediately impressed by the way that Maiberger created two other characters (“little Tommy” and Mrs. Lippett) for us by imitating their voices in the opening songs.
Max Chernin is equally well-chosen for the part of Jervis. There is a duality in the Jervis/Smith identity that could easily be either lost or overdone had Chernin not delivered so masterfully. His voice blends nicely with Maiberger’s in the duets and antiphonal numbers, and it carries Jervis’ good-natured disposition throughout, as well as his confusion and ambivalence as his feelings for Jerusha change and grow.
Scenic designer Chris Bernier’s diamond-shaped set creates a detailed, authentic 1900s study, complete with tall shelves of books, a desk (with period telephone and typewriter), and a well-worn armchair. We were impressed by the use of such stage properties as trunks and tables to create mountains and other realities. Also: The simultaneous presence of both actors on the stage (only a few feet apart) while the characters are actually miles apart creates a metaphor that highlights just how “close” Jerusha and Jervis are even when they are “far apart.”
Lighting designer Christina Munich expertly blends focused lighting with follow-spots to define (and refine) the various realities on the set. And Sheila Cox’s costume designs have clothed the characters in authentic 1900s garb.
There is a definite freshness to the music. Although the songs all have the feel of “show tunes,” they are influenced by a variety of styles. And even though we had heard none of these songs prior to attending the show, we found all of them pleasing and catchy, from the opening “Oldest Orphan” that sets the stage — as well as the light tone — of the piece to the nearly haunting “I’m a Beast,” the optimistic “Secret of Happiness,” and the just plain funny “She Thinks I’m Old.” And, even though each song easily stands on its own, there is a continuity that makes them feel so totally connected as pieces of the greater whole.
Is Daddy Long Legs a “romantic comedy”? Yes. But it is much more. There is a coming-of-age component for both Jerusha and the somewhat older Jervis. And there are social issues which, while handled peripherally, are integral to the plot as well as the mood of the piece.
Our recommendation: attend this show with a “special someone” — it is an experience to be shared.
A few afterthoughts:
- There is a 1955 movie (adapted from the same book) starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Carron that we now feel compelled to watch.
- YouTube has several videos that feature Theatre Raleigh guest director Megan McGinnis singing these songs, which we have yet to tire of listening to.
SECOND OPINION: May 18th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Review by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-Theatre-Raleighs-Sweet-Heartfelt-DADDY-LONG-LEGS-Transports-Audience-to-a-Simpler-Time-20180518 and May 7th interview with director Megan McGinnis, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-Megan-McGinnis-Talks-About-Making-Her-Directorial-Debut-in-THEATRE-RALEIGHS-Production-of-Daddy-Long-Legs-20180507; and May 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article211390549.html and April 28th mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article209817894.html.
Theatre Raleigh presents DADDY LONG LEGS at 8 p.m. May 18, 2 and 8 p.m. May 19, 3 p.m. May 20, 8 p.m. May 23-25, 2 and 8 p.m. May 26, and 3 p.m. May 27 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
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Daddy Long Legs (1912 epistolary novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daddy-Long-Legs_(novel) (Wikipedia).
The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Jean Webster (Fredonia, NY-born novelist, nee Alice Jane Chandler Webster, 1876-1916): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Webster (Wikipedia).
Daddy Long Legs (2012 West End and 2015 Off-Broadway musical): http://www.daddylonglegsmusical.com/ (official website), https://www.mtishows.com/daddy-long-legs (Music Theatre International), https://paul-gordon-gleh.squarespace.com/daddy-long-legs (Paul Gordon’s web page), http://www.johncaird.com/musicals.html (John Caird’s web page), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6036 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daddy_Long_Legs_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/DADDY-LONG-LEGS-Audience-Guide.pdf (Skylight Music Theatre of Milwaukee, WI).
Paul Gordon (music and lyrics): http://www.paulgordonmusic.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/46342 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/paul-gordon-75533 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0330509/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Gordon_(composer) (Wikipedia).
John Caird (book): http://www.johncaird.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/7309 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-caird-14350 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0129035/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Caird_(director) (Wikipedia).
Megan McGinnis (New York, NY director): http://meganmcginnis.net/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/46340 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/megan-mcginnis-69621 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0569366/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megan_McGinnis (Wikipedia).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.