REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs (Northlight Theatre)

 

Tuneless letter reading makes a dull ‘Daddy’

 

Robert Adelman Hancock and Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Daddy Long Legs
    
Music/Lyrics by Paul Gordon,
Book by
John Caird
Directed by John Caird
North Shore Center for Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
Through October 24  |  
Tickets: $45–55  |   more info 

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Based on a lively, epistolary, young-adult novel written in 1912 by Jean Webster, Northlight Theatre’s regional premiere Daddy Long Legs centers on Jerusha Abbott, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," who unexpectedly earns the offer to attend college sponsored by one of the orphanage trustees. That thrusts her into a world she’s never before known.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Webster’s story indeed has long legs — the author turned it into a stage play that ran on Broadway in 1914. Mary Pickford starred in a silent movie version in 1919, and the 1935 Shirley Temple film “Curly Top” was rooted in that film. A British stage musical called Love from Judy opened in 1952 and ran for two years, and Fred Astaire starred in a 1955 Hollywood musical version. It’s since become a Japanese animation and a Korean film. 

In Webster’s version of the tale, Jerusha details her collegiate adventures in a series of charming and unaffected letters to her carefully anonymous and unresponsive benefactor, "Mr. Smith," whom she nicknames "Daddy-Long-Legs." Although we may have our suspicions, readers don’t find out who Smith really is until Jerusha does — nearly at the end of the novel. Webster’s novel evolves into a romance, but lots of its charm comes from Jerusha’s descriptions of her hijinks at school. The dissatisfying new chamber musical by Paul Gordon and John Caird gives us little of that, concentrating on the incipient love affair.

We learn from the outset that Smith is really one Jervis Pendleton, a much younger man than Jerusha believes, and we watch as he falls in love through the mails and plots to meet his plucky protege. That removes most of the mystery and suspense.

For example, in the novel, we are as mystified as Jerusha when her sponsor won’t permit her to spend the summer in the Adirondacks with her college roommate, while the musical makes it clear his objection is to the roomie’s handsome brother.

Played by Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock, Jerusha and Jervis are the only characters. The focus remains on Jerusha and her letters, which she sings. While Daddy Long Legs isn’t quite a sung-through musical, these recitatives make up much of the play. McGinnis has a sweet voice and Hancock, who mainly sings backup, does fine, but the songs are undistinguished and Gordon’s score largely tuneless.

David Farley’s set is, for unknown reasons, littered with luggage, with a central moat full of suitcases and trunks that the actors keep circling, somewhat dizzily, though Jervis spends most of his time stuck rear stage in a book-lined office.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.
Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

Since the one-way nature of the correspondence prevents much back and forth between the two characters, the play becomes largely action-free. No matter how endearing, what makes for good narrative in a book becomes rather dull on stage. That might not matter so much if the music were more interesting, but as it is, the play needs more life and more people in it. In the novel, we get this though Jerusha’s rich descriptions of her friends and others she interacts with.

In the first song, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," we get a little of this, as Jerusha mimics people at the orphanage. Had this kind of characterization continued through the musical, it might have worked. But from then on, the singing letters do more telling than showing. McGinnis’s charming and animated performance goes far to make up for this, but not far enough.

Moreover, for all its modernisms in terms of cast and staging, Daddy Long Legs seems overly old-fashioned and simple. A story aimed at young girls in 1912 rather lacks spice for adult audiences a century later.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

 

 

CAST

Megan McGinnisMegan McGinnis (Jerusha Abbott) originated the role of Jerusha at the Rubicon Theatre (Independent Award), TheatreWorks and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (Acclaim Award).  She was last seen on Broadway starring as Eponine in the revival of Les Miserables.  She originated the role of Beth March in the Broadway musical Little Women and played a year-long run as Belle in Beauty and the Beast.  Other Broadway credits: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Parade and The Diary of Anne Frank.  National Tours: The Sound of Music (Liesl) and James Joyce’s The Dead (Lily).  Television & film: Dear John; Sister, Sister; Wings; Blossom (recurring); Anywhere But Here and A Goofy Movie.  Megan can be heard on the original cast recordings of Little Women and Parade, and most recently, on Sutton Foster’s album Wish singing the duet "Flight."  Megan would like to thank her parents for absolutely everything.  And John, Paul, and Jayne, for helping her find Jerusha. www.meganmcginnis.info

 

Robert Adelman HancockRobert Adelman Hancock (Jervis Pendleton) National Tour: Mamma Mia!  New York: College the Musical, New York Musical Theatre Festival.  Regional: Daddy Long Legs (TheatreWorks, Rubicon Theatre Company, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), James Joyce’s The Dead (Court Theatre), The Fantasticks(Utah Shakespearean Festival), Hair (Hangar Theatre), Route 66 (Original Cast – Milwaukee Rep),Forever Plaid (Barrymore nomination – Delaware Theatre Company), Muscle (Pegasus Players), A Christmas Carol (Westport Country Playhouse), Fiddler on the Roof (Rubicon Theatre Company).  Television & Film: Guiding Light and The Liver.  Mr. Hancock has performed as a soloist with the Tokyo Philharmonic and is a member of The Music Theatre Company of Chicago.  For more information, visitwww.robhancock.com

 
PRODUCTION

Daddy Long Legs at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts - presented by Northlight Theatre.John Caird (Director/Book) Broadway: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Miserables (Tony Award), Jane Eyre (Tony nominee), Stanley (Tony nominee).  International: Macbeth (Almeida Theatre); Hamlet, Candide, Peter Pan, The Seagull (with Judi Dench), Stanley and Humble Boy (National Theatre); The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night andDance of Death (Royal Dramatic Theatre, Sweden); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New National Theatre, Japan); Jane Eyre andThe Beggar’s Opera (Nissay Theatre, Japan).  Television & Film: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, As You Like It, and his adaptation of Henry IV for the BBC.  Additional credits include The Siegfried and Roy  Spectacular in Las Vegas, numerous operas including Brief Encounter and Tosca at Houston Grand Opera and Don Carlos at Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.  He has recently published a book about directing called Theatre Craft.  Mr. Caird is an Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Principal Guest Director at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.

Paul Gordon (Music, Lyrics and Orchestrations)  Broadway: Jane Eyre (Tony nominee).  Regional: Emma (TheatreWorks and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; Daddy Long Legs (TheatreWorks, Rubicon Theatre Company, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park).  Mr. Gordon’s other works include Lucky Break, Death: The Musical and Analogue and Vinyl.  He is currently working on Little Miss Scrooge, a contemporary retelling of the Dickens classic.  He has written several number one pop songs and is the recipient of nine ASCAP Awards.

Laura Bergquist (Music Director) conducted National Tours of The King and I, Titanic and Miss Saigon.  She is a frequent guest conductor in regional theatres and a clinician in universities and churches.  An ASCAP Awards recipient for composition, her personal catalogue includes more than sixty works in print and several recordings.  Ms. Bergquist was the original Musical Director for Jane Eyre (the first John Caird and Paul Gordon collaboration) and has worked regionally in theatres including Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Rubicon, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, Music Theatre of Wichita, Stage One and Theatre of Stars, as well as the New York Emma at The Old Globe.  For my mother-in-law, Mildred Bergquist who lived in an Oklahoma orphanage from age 4 to age 18 and blessed the world with her charity, faith and spirit until age 93.

David Farley (Set and Costume Design) Broadway: A Little Night Music, 13 The New Musical, Sunday in the Park with George.  International: Kiss Me, Kate! (Stratford, Ontario); A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and Little Shop of Horrors(London West End); Rocky Horror Show (European Tour); Aspects of Love, A Little Night Music, La Cage Aux Folles, Take Flight, Tick Tick Boom! and The Last Five Years (Menier Chocolate Factory); Sweeney Todd (Gate Theatre, Dublin); Corpse! (Salisbury Playhouse); Macbeth (Sheffield Crucible Studio); Oklahoma! (Chichester Festival Theatre).  Regional: Take Flight (McCarter Theatre); Sunday in the Park with George (5th Avenenue Theatre); Tick Tick Boom! (Rubicon, Coronet, Westport County Playhouse.  Awards: Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Set Design, Sunday in the Park with George, Studio 54 Theatre; Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle Award for Best Set Design for Sunday in the Park with George, Wyndhams Theatre, Menier Chocolate Factory. www.davidfarley.co.uk.

Paul Toben (Lighting Design) Broadway: The Story of My Life; Associate Designer for Next to Normal, Bye Bye Birdie, Sunday in the Park with George and Pal Joey.  Off-Broadway: The Realm, Wild Project; Romeo and Juliet ( Columbia Stages); Too Little, Too Late (HERE Arts Center); When in Disgrace (Examined Man Theatre); The Redheaded Man (Fringe Encores).  National Tour: Associate Designer for A Bronx Tale, Annie and White Christmas.  Regional: Daddy Long Legs ( Rubicon Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park); Shining City (Shadow Lawn Stage); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Theatre By the Sea); three seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival including designs of Caravan Man and Demon Dreams; Associate Designer for Broadway: Three Generations at The Kennedy Center and Shamu Rocks! at SeaWorld Orlando.

Cecil Averett (Sound Design) has designed sound and composed music for theater, film, multimedia and civic installations.  He is also a software designer and co-founder of cs|designgroup, a production and multimedia design company.  Some of his regional theater credits include The Marvelous Wonderettes and Grey Gardens at Northlight, Passion Play at the Goodman, and productions at Arena Stage, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, and Marriott Lincolnshire.  Other recent designs include the off-Broadway production of Beyond Glory at Roundabout, and Cap21’s premiere of Waiting for My Man, also off-Broadway. Mr. Averett was the recipient of an AfterDark Award (original music) for his work on Eclipse Theatre’s production of Frame 312 as well as a Joseph Jefferson Award nominee for sound design of Passion Play.

Nell Balaban (Associate Director) Broadway: Associate Director for Golda’s Balcony.  New York: Associate Director for Rooms(New World Stages); Director for Lips Together, Teeth Apart (Wingspan Arts); Katharine Heller’s Boy in the Basement(Outstanding Director Award – New York Fringe Festival); staged reading of Lucky Break (Manhattan Theatre Club); Heartbreak House (Brave New World).  Regional: Associate Director for Much Ado About Nothing (The Alley Theatre), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Paper Mill Playhouse); L’il Abner (Goodspeed Opera House).

Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager) is delighted to be collaborating once again with the talented people at Northlight.  Previous Northlight stage management credits include Low Down Dirty Blues, Awake and Sing!, The Lieutenant of Inishmore,Mauritius, Grey Gardens, The Miser and Gee’s Bend.  Elsewhere, her recent credits include Footloose, The Christmas Schooner, Knute Rockne – All-American and many other productions at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN; the world premieres of Free Man of Color and Court-Martial at Fort Devens, among others, for Victory Gardens Theatre; Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and Into the Woods at Marriott Lincolnshire; and 18 productions for Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.  Rita has been the set designer at Harold Washington College since 2001 and is a member of the  Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago.  She is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and a proud member of Actors Equity.  Special thanks to the amazing Northlight crew!

 

NOTE: Bios courtesy of Northlight website.

     
     

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