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.

 

 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs (Bruised Orange Theatre)

Beatings on the beach more fun than you’d think

 

DSCN0488

 
Bruised Orange Theater Company presents
 
Daddy Long Legs
  
By Clint Sheffer
Directed by John Morrison
Leone Beach Park, 1222 W. Touhy  (map)
Through Aug. 1  | 
Tickets: $15 or pay what you can  | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On a beautiful summer’s day, even the most ardent drama lovers might be reluctant to be cooped up in a dark and stuffy theater. So Bruised Orange Theater Company has come to the rescue. With their cleverly staged, site-specific, one-act, gangster mystery, Daddy Long Legs, you can get your fix of theater and go to the beach.

DSCN0489 The theater company provides your choice of beach chairs or blankets on the sand next to the breakwater at Leone Beach Park and the fun, 50-minute show won’t take too much time away from your evening.

An original play by Bruised Orange’s Clint Sheffer, Daddy Long Legs takes place in the wake of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre when two small-time mobsters, Bobby Widdle and Mars Streznick, meet on the Chicago lakefront with a bloody sack. The fictional Daddy Long Legs of Sheffer’s title is a mysterious Chicago gangland figure, alluded to in awed tones by the two men as a secret force behind the mob. (This Daddy Long Legs has nothing to do with the 1912 Jean Webster novel of the same name. The basis for the 1955 Fred Astaire movie, the Webster novel the source of the new John Caird musical scheduled to open at Northlight Theatre in the fall.)

Widdle, worried about his missing wife, Jane, demands answers. Streznick says he knows where she is but won’t tell. He’s also close-mouthed about the contents of the bag, and insists that the two must wait on the deserted beach because of "orders" from a higher-up in the organization. The pugnacious Widdle, who believes Jane and Streznick are two-timing him, starts throwing punches, and the two mix it up while trading barbed insults and threats.

I never thought I’d enjoy watching two men beat up each other on the beach, but Sheffer, as Widdle, and John Arthur Lewis as Streznick, create strongly believable characters, and their fisticuffs in the sand become surprisingly compelling. Kudos to Fight Choreographer Wes Clark..

The setting adds a good deal of charm. You can hardly get a more beautiful backdrop than Lake Michigan, and even the weather seemed to get in on the act during the opening performance, with lowering clouds and distant flashes of lightning at dramatic moments while Sheffer and Lewis rolled on the sand, inches from the roiling surf.

Sheffer’s terse gangster dialogue and Director John Morrison’s lively beachfront staging keep us engaged until the resolution of the mystery and the appearance of Jane (a cartoonish performance by Alison Connelly), when the plot starts to go off the deep end and the playwright indulges in some awful puns. Yet despite its uneven quality, Daddy Long Legs makes a highly agreeable way to while away an hour in the out of doors.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Note: Parking is $1 per hour up to 7 p.m. in the lot at the north end of the park. No restroom facilities are available.