If you're a fan of simple, sweet love stories told in song, performed by practiced professional actors in the beautifully wrought setting of a well-directed production, then read no further: Call Arizona Theatre Company's box office, and buy your tickets to Daddy Long Legs, an adaptation of Jean Webster's book about an orphan and her mysterious benefactor.
If, however, you're not too keen on musicals, or find sweet love stories—even clever and well-performed ones—rather vapid and cloying, read on.
What ATC has obviously intended as a cheerful seasonal offering, Daddy Long Legs is hard not to like, even if you're not a fan of musicals. (Yes, there are such people.) But this is a rather unusual musical: There is no soaring chorus, nor are there fancy-footed dancers. There are no glitzy costumes or technically impressive sets to dazzle and delight. Rather, it is impressively simple. There are two characters, who, although they share the stage, never (knowingly) share the same space. It's a clever convention that works well. The story is mostly told in song, and because the actors are both onstage, they are actually able to sing duets. And the ending is, well, appropriate for the season, let's just say.
Webster's novel was published in 1912 and has been treasured by young girls for decades. The story has been adapted numerous times, including a theatrical adaption by Webster and several movies. The story takes place early in the 20th century and spans a little more than four years. Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is a smart but underprivileged young woman, a good-natured—and seemingly gifted—denizen of the John Grier Home for orphans. A trustee of the orphanage has taken note of Jerusha as someone who, with a good education, might have quite a bit to offer the world. So, anonymously, he offers to pay her way through college. There are conditions, of course: She must write him at least once a month, and there should never be any mention of gratitude. He, in turn, will not correspond with her.
Jerusha, of course, is delighted. Not only has she has yearned to further her education; she wants to be a writer, and her mandated monthly correspondence will help develop her talents. It takes her a while to adjust to her new collegiate world, which involves an academic load she is little prepared to shoulder, as well as an introduction to privileged girls who far outclass her. She pours her feelings out on the pages of her letters, sweetly granting her benefactor the nickname "Daddy Long Legs," because she thought she caught a glimpse of his shadow at the orphanage, which suggested he might be, well, spidery-long in the legs. Her letters reflect her curiosity about his age, which she imagines to be in the vicinity of ancient—but we, of course, can see he is most definitely not. He is a youngish, good-looking bachelor, although he's perhaps a bit on the stern side.
As might be expected, this one-sided outpouring of thoughts and feelings intrigues "Daddy" (Robert Adelman Hancock), and an odd attraction to the object of his charity begins to develop. As Jerusha grows as a student and develops into a savvy young woman, he manipulates her goings and comings to draw her tighter to his world—he does, after all, have the power of the purse strings—although he remains unwilling to confess his feelings and reveal his identity until, well, it is dramatically appropriate.
That's all, really. It's a simple story well-told, a romance that feeds young girls' fantasies of salvation-by-knight-in-shining-armor. It has no pretensions to be anything else—there's no social commentary or morality-preaching—although Webster was quite politically progressive. It simply is what it is.
If you can embrace that, you'll enjoy the show. If you require thought-generating, driving drama, this is not for you.
Naturally, if you've got only two characters to work with, the actors who portray them need to be skilled, charismatic and able to generate enough chemistry to connect their characters across the miles that separate them, especially since they never speak directly. McGinnis and Hancock do an admirable job.
McGinnis creates a Jerusha so open, clever, spunky and sweet that it's hard not to give her your heart. She originated the role when the show premiered at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif. Her voice is perfect for this role, and she delivers Paul Gordon's songs, in which Jerusha teases, frets, fears and dreams, with expert vocal skill and emotional heart. Hers is a lovely, lively performance.
Hancock's Daddy Long Legs, aka Jervis Pendleton, also gives us an intriguing character, likable if a bit uptight. As Jerusha flourishes—growing into an educated young woman, one who knows her mind and holds to her dreams—Hancock's Daddy also goes through a transformation. He gradually emerges from hiding in the safety of his library and opens his heart to the woman he has learned to love through the pages and pages on which she has shared herself. (Hancock also originated this role at the Rubicon, and the actors have together delivered the show at numerous theaters.) His voice is much-less perfect than McGinnis', but is more than adequate. Their voices harmonize and blend beautifully in their duets.
Internationally renowned John Caird has directed this production, which is a joint effort by ATC and several other theaters. He also wrote the book for the musical. Julie McBride leads a small but polished orchestra, and the design elements are balanced and serve the show perfectly.
So there it is: a sweet and charming story. Actually, the elegant simplicity of Daddy Long Legs might redeem the show for musical-theater skeptics. And who knows? Although it is an unabashed romance, it might be just smart enough—and the performances good enough—to wheedle its way into the hearts of the most-cynical Grinches.