If you like A.R. Gurney’s popular two-person play “Love Letters”, you’re going to love “Daddy Long Legs”, a musical adaptation of the 1912 novel by Jean Webster. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s the story of the relationship between an orphan and her mysterious benefactor as told – well, actually, sung – through a series of letters. Elly Lichenstein, Artistic Director of Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, transports her directorial skills from the cozy confines of Cinnabar to the even cozier confines of Sebastopol’s Main Stage West for this production.
Jerusha Abbott (Madison Genovese), the oldest orphan at the John Grier Home, is surprised to learn that a trustee who’s been impressed with her writing will provide her with a college education under a very particular set of circumstances. She must write him regularly with the knowledge that he will never respond. He will remain anonymous with her letters simply to be addressed to “Mr. Smith.” Jerusha imagines him to be a trustee whose shadow she caught a glimpse of one evening. His legs were long and spindly and as he is a trustee she imagines him to be quite old. Rather than address her benefactor with his chosen boring moniker, she titles him “Daddy Long Legs.”
Her benefactor is actually Jervis Pendleton (Tyler Costin), a young philanthropist who is at first amused but soon enchanted by Jerusha’s musings on college life and her personal growth. As he’s the uncle of one of Jerusha’s college roommates, he arranges to meet her while maintaining his anonymity. Their relationship grows over the four years of college, but Jerusha’s graduation may finally force Jervis’s hand in revealing his true identity.
This entire tale is told through song with titles like “Who is this Man?,” “She Thinks I’m Old,” “Freshman Year Studies,” “The Secret of Happiness,” “Graduation Day” and the like. The show’s format demands that the music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and John Caird be heavy on exposition, and there’s so much of it that it often feels repetitive and one note.
Ah, but it’s a beautifully sung note. Ms. Genovese brings pluck and charm to Jerusha and Mr. Costin’s physical lankiness is perfect for the role of Jervis. Both are in fine voice and complement each other quite well in their duets. They manage to completely avoid the trap that a closer examination of the storyline might provide.
Elizabeth Craven had designed a very utilitarian set for the small MSW stage with half of it occupied by Jervis’s study and the other half representing the orphanage, the college, a farm and a mountaintop at various times. Musical director Dave MacNab and his three-piece orchestra give the often-sweet score its due with the cello work by Gwenyth Davis particularly emotive.
Director Lichenstein, though again limited by the show’s epistolary format and the relatively small performance space, manages to add a few nice directorial touches that when combined with two appealing performances ends with the result being a very pleasant evening of musical theatre.
As originally published in the Petaluma Argus-Courier