Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis), the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home, learns one day that she’s been chosen by a generous benefactor to receive full college tuition with room and board. But there’s a catch. Nine of them, actually — all recounted in the benefactor’s sole letter to Abbott.
She’s delighted to escape the orphanage, but puzzled by college life and fellow students whose experiences with family, friends and privilege she’s never shared. Still, she honors her benefactor’s request to write once a month — often writing more often as she has anecdotes or questions to share.
Abbott knows only that her benefactor is lanky and tall, having seen him leaving the orphanage the day word came of his generosity. And so she dubs him “Daddy Long Legs,” assuming he’s terrribly old and boldly asking in her letters whether he’s got black hair, grey hair or no hair at all.
But her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock), is young and rather handsome. Also bookish and a bit of a loner. As Pendelton reads Abbott’s letters, which he’s sworn never to answer, he comes to admire her curiosity, innocence and wit. Once they meet, under false pretenses, his admiration turns to adoration. It’s something he can’t share, for reasons revealed during the course of the play.
“Daddy Long Legs” features book by John Caird, who also directs the work. Prior directing credits have earned Caird both Tony and Olivier Awards. The musical features music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, whose music and lyrics for “Jane Eyre” earned a Tony Award nomination.
The writing is well-paced and humorous, the music sentimental and sweet. Together they convey the evolving and sometimes conflicted emotions of Abbott and Pendleton. Both McGinnis and Hancock originated their roles at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California.
The only weakness in Sunday night’s performance at the Herberger Theater Center was the sometimes nasal quality of Hancock’s vocal performance — but it’s easily overlooked with the exceptional quality of all those high notes. Abbott’s vocals were clear and melodic, the perfect embodiment of the character’s wonderment at the world around her.
Although ”Daddy Long Legs” is a tale of self-discovery and budding romance, it also explores some weightier themes — the role of women in society, the limitations of charity by checkwriting, the nature of God and the lure of socialism. Apparently all were on the mind of Jean Webster, the novelist whose work inspired the musical.
“Daddy Long Legs” is set in New England during the early part of the 20th century. Its simple but dramatic set consists of a darkly-paneled library filled with book-laden shelves, plus desk, lamp and chair – and an assortment of trunks that morph into everything from bed to mountaintop.
A teen who sat next to me at the performance toyed every once and a while with her cell phone — failing, I suspect, to recognize how opportunities for women have evolved since Webster penned her novel in 1912. There’s a comprehensive study guide on the Arizona Theatre Company website that does a magnificent job of making clear just how far we’ve come, and how we got here.
In the end, I was struck be something far simpler — Abbott’s realization that the bravery needed to face the everyday exceeds the courage called for in times of crisis.
Coming up: Reflections on 1,000 posts