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'Daddy Long Legs' a rare successful two-person musical

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Arizona Theatre Company

'Daddy Long Legs' a rare successful two-person musical

  • Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Arizona Theatre Company's 'Daddy Long Legs.'
    Tim FullerMegan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Arizona Theatre Company's 'Daddy Long Legs.'

Arizona Theatre Company’s latest production, “Daddy Long Legs” is a carefully honed, crisply presented mini-musical. Despite a hyper-romantic, predictable narrative, its two hours sail by engagingly, carried by flawless performances. In fact, the real problem with“Daddy Long Legs” may be that it’s almost too perfect. Is “slick” a bad thing?

The “Daddy-Long-Legs” pedigree goes back to the 1912 novel of the same name by Jean Webster, a Vassar graduate and suffragette. A variant of the Dickensian “orphan with a mysterious benefactor” motif, the “Daddy-Long-Legs” franchise has been a rich vein. It’s the source of no fewer than seven films, including movies starring Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple, as well as Indian and Korean versions and a Japanese anime TV series. Most familiar is the 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. (Seriously, what ever did we do before Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database?)

Just as the novel eschewed conventional narration in preference to the intimacy of direct address through Jerusha’s letters, this musical is structured around epistolary monologues and first-person songs.

The story is straightforward and simple, set in the original’s pre-World War I innocence.

'Daddy Long Legs' may not make you think, but it will make you feel good

The literary talent and academic potential of orphan girl Jerusha Abbot attracts the attention of Jervis Pendelton, a wealthy trustee for the John Grier Home. Pendleton routinely provides anonymous post-orphanage educational aid, though usually only to young men, since girls are likely to squander the investment by marrying and having children. Pendleton makes an exception in this case, impressed by Jerusha’s essays and grades. The aid is tied to his usual requirements: 1) that she must write him every month; and that 2) he will remain anonymous. However, a shadowy distant glimpse of her gawky benefactor leads to Jerusha’s nickname for him as she begins the one-sided correspondence.

Jervis, however, is not the elderly father figure that Jerusha imagines, but is instead a handsome young scion only a few acceptable years older than her. As her naïve but articulate letters accumulate, Jervis becomes one smitten kitten. Fortunately, Jerusha’s college suite-mate is a relative of his, so he visits discreetly and introduces himself, only to read her candid observations later. Continuing to play both sides of the relationship makes it increasingly difficult for him to come clean to her.

In Act II, Jerusha has largely outgrown her initial inferiority complex around her more worldly and well-travelled peers. She begins developing a social conscience, citing improvements she would make to the orphanage and proclaiming herself a socialist, which apparently was not such a terrible thing before the invention of talk radio.

By graduation, she has published her first novel and fallen in love with Jervis. When he finally reveals himself to also be her benefactor, rather than anger at his duplicity, she falls even more in love, fortuitously merging her abstract affection for Daddy Long Legs with her tangible devotion to Jervis as her soul mate. Curtain. Thunderous applause.

“Daddy Long Legs” comes to ATC as a complete and well-developed package from the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California. The production is the brainchild of Tony Award winner John Caird (“Les Miserables,” “Nicholas Nickleby”) who wrote the book and also directs. The play has been expertly workshopped until it sharper than a kinzu knife with nary a wasted line nor gesture anywhere.

The 25 musical numbers (including several reprises) are the work of Paul Gordon, Tony nominated for “Jane Eyre,” writing both lyrics and music. Like the overall work itself, the songs have had all fat excised, whether articulating plot developments or accenting emotional beats. The melodies are neither groundbreaking nor overly memorable at first hearing, but five reprises and two double reprises (“The Secret of Happiness” and “The Color of Your Eyes”) helped anchor the key songs securely. Arrangements centered on a contemporary sound from the six-piece band, often pairing keyboards with guitar in a way that nicely underscored the vocal performances and never overwhelmed them.

The performances by original cast members Megan McGinnis as Jerusha and Robert Adelman Hancock as Jervis were as flawless as you would expect after performing a work more than 200 times.

A successful two-person musical is a rare creature (only “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” comes to mind), since it defies conventions. That the two-hour experience (plus intermission) with only two characters seemed to move so fast was a tribute to the sleek writing, but more so to the engaging performances.

McGinnis opens the show so gosh darn likable that her ability to deftly hold your attention throughout the nuances of an entirely predictable character arc is that much more of an accomplishment. Hancock, whose role is largely adjunct to Jerusha’s journey, gave perfect support both vocally and in his dramatic dichotomy as both Daddy Long Legs and potential suitor.

So what is the problem with a lighthearted musical? “Daddy Long Legs” has no controversy, no sex, no foul language. It gaily follows its plucky heroine straight to happiness with only minor stones thrown in her path. Perhaps it is too perfect — there are no rough edges left and some may find the material bland and obvious. On the other hand, the story is well-crafted and the performances are sublime. “Daddy Long Legs” may not make you think, but it will make you feel good and there’s nothing wrong with that.


If you go

  • “Daddy Long Legs” presented by Arizona Theatre Company at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Avenue through Dec 21.
  • Evening performances Tues.-Sat., Dec. 6-11 and Wed.-Sat., Dec. 14-21.  Additional matinee performances on Dec. 4, 7, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17 and 18. Curtain times for evening and matinee performances vary.
  • Reserved seats are $36 to $60 with discounts available for seniors, students and military. Tickets available through the ATC box office, 622-2823 or at Ticketmaster.

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