By Ruth Ross
In the days before email and text messages, letters were an essential part of everyday life, and authors naturally embraced this form of communication to tell a story. In the 18th century, Samuel Richardson pioneered the genre with Pamela and Clarissa, followed by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and, and more recently, Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Now, marry the epistolary (from epistles, or letters) novel to the “pocket musical” (a show with very few—often only two—performers), and you have the delightfully charming Daddy Long Legs, now onstage at the George Street Playhouse. While the story line may be neither deeply philosophical nor the events earth-shaking, the show is perfect for an audience still reeling from a contentious presidential campaign and longing for something uplifting —just in time for the holiday season.
Based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster, this production with music and lyrics by Paul Cordon and book by John Caird is a far cry from the more familiar 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron and featuring songs by the great pop music composer Johnny Mercer. For one thing, it’s quieter, more intimate; for another, the lyrics are filled with literary references and interesting rhymes, sung by two talented actors to lilting, introspective melodies.
With its references to orphanages (Charles Dickens), the education of a young woman who will go on to become a published writer (Louisa May Alcott), and social commentary and critique (Mark Twain), the plot of Daddy Long Legs will feel familiar. Conveyed entirely by sung-through dialogue, the letters engage us and make us care about what could easily be considered stock characters.
Eighteen- year-old Jerusha Abbott (Elise Vannerson, above), “the oldest orphan in the John Grier home,” receives a grant from an anonymous benefactor whom she nicknames Daddy Long Legs to honor his height, which she has fleetingly glimpsed. He will pay for her to attend college with the only requirement that she receive good grades and write him monthly to keep him posted on her progress. While what follows is a celebration of the education of a real naïf (Jerusha has lived her entire life in the home and so lacks any familiarity with literature or social mores) who struggles to be true to herself in the face of society’s expectations, Daddy Long Legs is essentially a love story. For not only do Jerusha and Daddy Long Legs (actually 40-something Jervis Pendleton) fall in love but each character learns to love him/herself through the letters. This last is accomplished by Caird’s having Pendleton, as well as Jerusha, read from the letters, thus revealing the man’s heart and mind—in fact, creating a character who doesn’t appear in the novel at all.
One of the driving forces of the play is its dependence on dramatic irony; we, the audience, are aware of what Jerusha only imagines about Daddy Long Legs. The old, bald man she envisions is, in reality, a handsome, albeit it lonely, young man (Ben Michael, left). His visits to the college, ostensibly to visit his niece Julia, Jerusha’s classmate, are all the more delicious as she becomes quite taken with him, her unknown benefactor! And his manipulation of her summer vacations to eliminate any other male suitors, while distasteful, can be attributed to his jealousy of her independence and possible suitors.
Michael Mastro’s direction has a light enough touch to prevent the production from sinking into cloying sentimentality. Instead, we are enchanted to witness the education of a feisty young woman intent on making her way in the world as a writer. Elise Vannerson shines as Jerusha; her lovely voice and spirited delivery convincingly conveys the young woman’s delight at learning more about literature, math and science and the world around her. Her letters to Daddy Long Legs are charming; as she reveals more about herself, he (and we) fall in love with her. In the role of benefactor Jervis Pendleton, Ben Michael turns in an equally fine performance. He, too, is in fine voice and is especially winning in the scenes when Jervis actually meets Jerusha. I just wish the playwright had given more motivation for his philanthropy and anguished character.
A trio of musicians accompanies the actors, providing just the right touch without overpowering their voices. Alexis Distler has outdone herself with her splendid scenic design, a two-level playing space lined with books, all the better to signify the education of these very attractive young people. Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting design plays a significant role in establishing atmosphere and directing the audience’s attention to the actors. And Esther Arroyo’s costumes for Jerusha are not only beautiful and appropriate to the time period (1908-1912) but also signify each change in the young woman’s situation and character.
The bildungsroman, or coming of age story, is a time-honored literary genre, and Daddy Long Legs manages to make such a story both instructive and charming. A celebration of education—scholarly and interpersonal—this pocket musical is a delight for both eyes and ears, enchanting us with its heroine’s pluck and spirit and the gradual warming the heart of a curmudgeonly young man. Daddy Long Legs is just the ticket for a holiday production.
Daddy Long Legs will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through December 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 72.246.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org online.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.