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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Daddy Long Legs

She has a brain. That's all that matters — Jervis

Daddy Long Legs
Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael
Writers and composers creating a musical with just two performers in charge of moving things along as well as keeping our interest alive for its duration have their work cut out for them. And any musical adaptation of a classic novel, as this one is, has the added burden of keeping faith with its source.

That said, Daddy Long Legs, as adapted by librettist John Caird and composer Paul Gordon from the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, succeeds in its own sweet way. With this production, its success is largely due to the charm of Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael, both of whom are making the George Street Playhouse debuts.

Last season, a much smaller-scaled production enjoyed an extended run Off Broadway. Even if bigger is not necessarily better, the audiences at GSP will be able to ooh and ah over Alexis Distler's grandiose unit setting of a massive library and other venues.

The story, also filmed in 1955 with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, is about a partially unrealized if also basically idealized romance between a precocious orphaned school girl named Jerusha Abbott and a wealthy scholarly older man. The musical is structured with mainly sung recitative that conveys the contents of primarily one-sided letters delivered over a course of years.

Jerusha Abbott introduces herself with a disarming aria "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home." She subsequently reveals the genesis of her self-ascribed name. Jerusha comes from a name she saw on a gravestone and Abbott was picked from the first page of the phone book.

Despite shades of both the spunky Little Orphan Annie and the more willful Jane Eyre (also given life by Caird and Gordon), Jerusha is blessed with an immediately endearing air of precociousness. As such, she is not inclined to allow her present situation, as one of the older and barely tolerated orphans in residence, prevent her from considering her options.

It is easy enough to become smitten by Jurusha's resolute and spirited personality, as seen through Ms. Vannerson's glowing performance. I especially liked the sound of her mellow slightly sandy soprano voice which made her lengthy arias float gently through the air without ever becoming piercing. This is an important aspect to her winning performance.

Jerusha's talent for writing is noticed by Jervis Pendelton (Ben Michael) who calls himself by his alias John Smith but is in reality one of the orphanage's trustees. The plot begins to bubble with his promise to finance Jerusha's education with the stipulation that his identity never be disclosed. The mysterious benefactor insists on a one-sided communication that will only be through letters sent to him by Jerusha once a month, with no expectation for a reply.

The title comes from a shadow that Jerusha sees of him on the wall that reminds her of a daddy-long-legs spider. Of course, the man she begins to imagine as "old, gray or maybe bald" is nothing like the real person. He is played with a restrained intensity by the very personable Mr. Michael who impressively changes the timbre of his voice on occasion to sound like Jerusha.

Complications inevitably arise but this is primarily a story that will inevitably end with a romantic denouement. While Jerusha remains the focus of our interest, there are ample moments for an increasingly impassioned Jervis to reflect on his life and his motives.

Although the setting tends to overwhelm the presence of its two primarily introspective characters, the direction by Michael Mastro deals well enough with the space and the distance between two characters. It is quite a feat to keep an audience engrossed with two characters who basically spend most of their time out of each other's reach...but thankfully not out of each other's thoughts and hearts.

Some might quibble that there is an inherently static quality to the action. But Daddy Long Legs may prompt you to say, as does the final song that "All This Time" was rather pleasantly spent.

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Daddy Long Legs by Paul Gordon (Music & Lyrics), John Caird (book)
Based on the novel by Jean Webster
Directed by Michael Mastro

Cast: Elise Vannerson (Jerusha Abbott), Ben Michael (Jervis Pendleton)
Orchestration: Paul Gordon and Brad Haak
Musical Direction: Darren R. Cohen
Scenic Design: Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Esther Arroyo
Lighting Design: Christopher J. Bailey
Sound Design: Ted Crimy
Production Stage Manager: Jane Pole
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
George Street Playhouse, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J.
Performances: Tuesday through Saturdays (except Thursday, 12/8) at 8 pm Thursday, Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. Sundays at 7 p.m.
From 11/29/16 Opened 12/02/16 Ends 12/24/16
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/02/16 NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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