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A CurtainUp Review
Daddy Long Legs
By Charles Wright

It isn't the great big pleasures that count the most; it's making a great deal out of the little ones — I've discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live in the now. Not to be forever regretting the past, or anticipating the future; but to get the most that you can out of this very instant.
— Jerusha Abbott, the orphan heroine of Daddy Long Legs
 Daddy Long Legs
Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander ( photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Daddy Long Legs, a small-scale musical based on Jean Webster's novel of the same name, has settled into an Off-Broadway theater in the Broadway district. This gemutlich little show and the intimate, recently renovated Davenport Theatre seem meant for each other.

Written by John Caird (libretto) and Paul Gordon (music and lyrics ), Daddy Long Legs has been seen previously in London's West End and at resident theaters around the United States. Based on the novel by Jean Webster (a grandniece of Mark Twain), this musical is a skillfully crafted two-hander featuring Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan. Visible in a perch above the stage, three instrumentalists — Brad Haak (keyboard), Craig Magnano (guitar), and Jeanette Stenson (cello) — are integral enough to the proceedings that the show might reasonably be called a dramatic quintet.

Because of her academic achievement, Jerusha Abbott (McGinnis), resident of an "orphan's asylum" since infancy, has come to the attention of one of the orphanage trustees, Jervis Pendleton (Nolan). Acting anonymously, Pendleton is underwriting Jerusha's education at an elite women's college. The only condition of his largesse is that she write monthly letters about her experiences and academic progress. Pendleton hopes she will have a writing career; the mandatory correspondence is supposed to be practice for that vocation.

Knowing nothing about her benefactor except that he's tall, Jerusha calls him "Daddy Long Legs." After arriving at her college, she unwittingly becomes acquainted with him as the youthful Uncle Jervis of one of her college friends. She's smitten but, in Webster's clever plot, the course of true love barrels down a bumpy path.

Webster's novel consists entirely of letters written by Jerusha. It's a vivid, first-person portrait of an intelligent young woman who has developed wit, integrity, and spunk, despite formative years in a 19th century orphanage. The musical, set between 1908 and 1912, is faithful to the novel; but Caird's libretto and Gordon's pop-inflected score expand Webster's material in ways that are sensitive to the literary source and convincing to the spectator.

In the epistolary novel, Pendleton is flat and static, since he's accessible only through the letter-writer's limited perspective. Caird and Gordon have re-imagined him for their musical, exploring his mind and motives as intricately as they do Jerusha's. They've created a male lead with dimension and emotional color, appropriate to the show's dramatic needs but consistent with what's in Webster's book.

Daddy Long Legs is beautifully cast (it's tempting to say perfectly so). McGinnis, who also played Jerusha in London, has a gamine quality that makes credible the character's swift shifts between mischievous wit and socialist posturing. Nolan, memorable as Strelnikov in the under-appreciated Doctor Zhivago on Broadway last spring, gives Pendleton insouciance and patrician swagger appropriate to his privileged education and Mayflower lineage. The singers' well-trained voices blend smoothly throughout; and the vocal arrangements by music director Haak yield some felicitous harmonic surprises.

David Farley's single set, handsomely paneled and furnished with bookcases and a multitude of steamer trunks, lends itself to swift scene changes to represent a variety of locations, indoors and out, with a minimum of rearrangement. Farley's scenic design is complemented by Paul Toben's moody lighting (adapted for New York by Cory Pattak). Caird's direction keeps the action moving around the multiple levels of Farley's set with the fluidity one might expect from the Tony-winning co-director of Les Miserables.

Farley has also designed the eye-appealing Edwardian costumes. His creations for McGinnis chart Jerusha's development from charity case through four years of college and into the first months of post-college living.

Daddy Long Legs runs a trifle long in the final scenes, but only a trifle. There's so much that's engaging about the show, one may understand why the authors were at a loss as to where they ought to trim.

Published in 1912, Webster's novel became a hit Broadway play (1914) and at least three movies (a musical in 1955 with Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire and earlier films with Janet Gaynor in 1931 and Mary Pickford in 1919). In recent years, though, the book has been relegated to the subgenre of young-adult fiction or "YA," as it's now known. Gordon and Caird have rescued Daddy Long Legs from the no-man's land of YA by creating a show that's for all ages but especially for grown-ups.

Daddy Long Legs by Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) & John Caird (libretto)

Director: John Caird
Musical Direction, Arrangements & Orchestrations: Brad Haak
Cast: Megan McGinnis (Jerusha), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jervis)
Scenic Design: David Farley
Costume Design: David Farley
Lighting Design: Paul Toben
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Lighting Adaptation: Cory Pattak
Associate Director: Nell Balaban
Lighting Design: Paul Toben
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Production Manager: Duncan R. Northern
Production Stage Manager: Jenny Gorelick
Company Manager: Katie Montgomery
General Manager: DTE Management/Ryan Conway
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45th Street
From 9/10/15; opened 9/28/15; open-ended run-- changed to a 6/06.16 closing.
Reviewed by Charles Wright at an October 3rd press performance
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