First, a revelation: This jewel of a musical is based on Jean Webster’s 1911 novel and takes place during that era. Don’t expect the 1955 Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron film. Webster herself wrote a 1914 play based on the book whose popularity later spawned six films, a 1952 stage musical, and a Japanese TV anime series. The enchanting, understated, joyful, and moving interpretation now in residence at Davenport Theater has heart and universality at which the familiar movie musical barely hinted.
A stellar production, Daddy Long Legs integrates book and music to a degree that implies its creators must’ve read one another’s minds. Its hero and heroine shift fluently from narrating, to (often jointly) reading letters aloud, to interaction, to vocals. Characters are revealed slowly, creating the illusion we’re getting to know them in real time and that a relationship is developing before our eyes. We become invested. (Book-John Ciard)
Music is appealing and fluid, eschewing hummable and show-stopping numbers for appealing melodies that serve the tale. Lyrics are smart, sensitive, and uncompromising. There are no cheap rhymes or easy clichés. (A single song arrives somewhat predictably.) Reprises are reworked to fit each new inclusion; thoughts expressed in one number sometimes reappear as evolved later on. Attention to detail is masterful. (Music/Lyrics-Paul Gordon)
Jerusha Abbott – Megan McGinnis – (first and last names chosen from a gravestone and the telephone book by the dour orphanage matron) is the oldest ‘child’ at The John Grier Home. Based on imaginative school essays, patrician trustee, Jervis Pendleton – Paul Alexander Nolan – endows her with a college education meant to further the girl’s writing. Her benefactor is known to the young woman as John Smith. Having only seen the lanky back of him, Jerusha affectionately calls the man Daddy Long Legs. “I feel like I belong to somebody now…”
In exchange for his largess, the girl is required to regularly write Smith with the caveats she never articulate gratitude and is to expect no communication in return. Jerusha does so religiously, describing both feelings “it isn’t the work that’s going to be hard, it’s the play…I’ll always feel like Alice in Wonderland stranded in Vanity Fair…” and her courses (with enthusiasm and naïveté). Cursive dates are intermittently projected on a wall indicating four years of university and ‘arranged’ summers.
Surprised by the captivating nature of Jerusha’s correspondence, “she has a brain, a wit, and a fearless turn of phrase,” the otherwise reserved Jervis is increasingly drawn to his blossoming young ward. One can practically hear the small egg-like cracks in his shell.
Eventually, he contrives to meet the girl using his real name. She knows only that Jervis is the uncle of a fellow student. The two grow tentatively closer. Jerusha sees what’s unaffected beneath the surface of proprietary habit and writes about Jervis to Daddy Long Legs. (Unlike the 1955 film, he’s of suitable age.) Throughout, but especially here, we watch him read the letters with convincing reaction. At this point, they’re tacked in groups on a floor to ceiling bookcase.
Jerusha increasingly exerts her independence. She’s attractive to others. Jervis feels jealous, but also guilty. Literary endeavors persist. Her brush with his niece evokes negative emotions about the family – and those like them. Hurt, uncertainty, hope, ambition, accomplishment, and, of course, love, follow. The road to this happy ending is realistically bumpy. Protagonists speak with credibility. There are more than a few teary eyes in the audience at the finale.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, let me assure you I’ve left out a great deal. This is a journey well worth taking.
As director, John Caird has the skilled hand of a surgeon. The small stage never feels confining. At opportune moments, props appear as if by slight-of-hand. All but one costume change is effected on stage without being distracting. Jervis so clearly struggles with both his conservative upbringing and active deception that boyish openness feels like an costly gift. Jerusha’s gradual confidence seems earned rather than dramatically anointed. Both actors create the illusion (is it?) of looking into our faces, which pulls at heartstrings.
Scenic and Costume Designer David Farley has created a well appointed, paneled library with hidden windows which are so suddenly revealed, you’ll feel fresh air. A ladder is expertly used by Caird as are a group of old trunks. Apparel is authentic, flattering, and character specific.
I’m familiar with neither of these simply wonderful performers. Both have superb voices. Megan McGinnis is a warm, engaging soprano that makes high demand performance look effortless. Paul Alexander Nolan is a fetching, broad range tenor. Both artists are also fine actors. McGinnis is irresistible. She lights up the stage and makes every experience empathetic. Movement is graceful and without artifice. Nolan is now uber-refined, now guileless, manifesting both with equal skill. He exudes sincerity, embodying sentiment with extraordinary nuance.
Not to be missed!
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Daddy Long Legs
Based on the novel by Jean Webster
Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon
Book by John Caird
Directed by John Caird
Starring Megan McGinnis, Paul Alexander Nolan
Music Direction, Arrangements, Orchestrations by Brad Haak
354 West 45th Street