The heartwarming musical, Daddy Long Legs, returns home for the holidays after its successful runs in London, Tokyo and New York. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley hosted the show’s world premiere in 2010 and proudly brings the two-person musical back as its 2016 holiday show. Its clever staging, memorable score and charming story will have even the most cynical theatergoer on their feet for a standing ovation.
As both a lover of the book and the 1955 movie with Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire, I walked into the theater with high expectations for this show. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, Daddy Long Legs tells the story of an orphan, Jerusha Abbot (Hilary Maiberger), and her relationship with the mysterious benefactor financing her college education. Her tuition, room and board are paid for in addition to a $35 monthly allowance (with inflation, worth more than $850 today). In return she is asked to write him a monthly letter and address it to John Smith. She quickly dubs him “Daddy Long Legs” because he is tall, one of the few things she knows about him. Little does she know that her Daddy Long Legs is none other than Jervis Pendleton (Derek Carley), her classmate’s young uncle with whom she is beginning to fall in love.
Through these letters, read and sung by the two actors, you see Jerusha grow up from a wide-eyed and witty freshman to a mature and clever young woman ready to take on the world. As such, the relationship between her and her benefactor changes as well.
“I’m feeling more like a girl and less like a child.”
-Jerusha, “The Color of Your Eyes” Daddy Long Legs
Although both actors are almost constantly on stage, the show cleverly showcases both Jerusha and Jervis’s thoughts and emotions independent from each other. In the book, the reader knows as little about Daddy Long Legs as Jerusha. However in the musical, you find out Daddy’s secret identity right after he receives his nickname in the third song.
That said, this show is not going to redefine your musical experience. Like any show, it has its flaws. At times it can become overly saccharine and one song in particular does not seem to fit with the rest of the show. The song, “Charity,” late in the show takes on a jazzy quality not seen in New York until the 1920s that does not seem to fit with the rest of the more traditionally musical-esque score.
Other critics have criticized the general predictability of a Cinderella-story plotline. This however, may also be seen as a strength. Yes, there is no mystery about how this love story is going to end, with kisses and marriage proposals, but this gives the audience to opportunity to enjoy the wit and wordplay of the letters along the way. The majority of Jerusha’s lines are pulled directly from Webster’s novel, but Jervis’ lines are crafted with thoughtfulness to show the audience a perspective other than a college-aged girl’s.
“I am just a fool, an imposter and a fake. Like the Lady of the Lake, I’m drowning in the waves of my deceit, but recused by your face each time we meet.”
-Jervis “The Man I’ll Never Be” Daddy Long Legs
The staging too is very clever. Jervis’ office is constructed upstage while Jerusha’s world takes place downstage. Period steam trunks are moved to create her set pieces, everything from beds to writing desks and even a mountain. The difference between the opulence of his set and the utilitarian of hers is both practical and symbolic. On a practical note, Jerusha travels to many locations while writing Daddy Long Legs, while Jervis generally writes (and sings) in his study. However these sets also reinforce that the two characters come from radically different social classes.
As a whole, the production is breathtaking. The songs touch your heart while the staging and story sweep you along with the characters on stage. This show is a delight for young and old, the perfect christmas show without having anything to do with the holidays.
Daddy Long Legs is produced by TheaterWorks Silicon Valley, playing at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, November 30, 2016 through January 7, 2017. Tickets: $35-$59.
Photos courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.