A Smart Sweetie at the Skylight
In 1912, author Jean Webster dreamed up a bright teen orphan name Jerusha Abbott. A trustee of the orphanage, charmed by an essay she has written, anonymously bankrolls her college education. The conditions: Write him a letter a month; and no contact otherwise.
The letters prove so witty and charming, that the benefactor breaks his own rule and meets her, but continues to keep his identity a secret. You can guess what happens from there. The story would be treacly, at best, were it not for the irresistible letters Webster wrote in Abbott’s voice. The slim novella unfolds entirely in those letters, and it’s hard to put down.
Daddy Long Legs, by Paul Gordon (music, lyrics) and John Caird (director, book), the musical version of Webster’s story, has been making the rounds and landed at the Skylight Music Theatre this weekend. Megan McGinnis and Rob Hancock play Jerusha and her benefactor, as they have throughout the country since 2009.
Everyone involved, including set and costume designer David Farley, has deftly solved the big theatrical problem of fleshing out the benefactor, Jervis Pendleton. In the book, he lives only in Jerusha’s letters. Caird and Farley put him in a book-lined study above and upstage of Jerusha’s playing area. So she can sing her letter songs as she writes them, and he can harmonize passages that especially speak to him as he reads. When he weaves himself into her life — she has no idea that this young fellow, and not some wealthy codger, is her Daddy Long Legs — he descends to interact with her. But even then, they converse in terms of letters she writes to her benefactor about this Jervis fellow.
This clever structure makes for effortless comic irony and, more important, keeps the play in Jerusha’s voice. Mostly, Caird and Gordon stick to Webster’s endlessly witty language, which abounds with smart observations about the world as this long-sequestered orphan discovers it.
When the playwrights deviate from the book’s language, the show turns a little too sweet — they could have left more tartness in Jerusha’s wit, I think. But enough remains to make you love and admire this girl and understand just why Jervis loses his Henry Higgins reserve. Hancock played the disintegration of that reserve perfectly, in gradual increments and subtle gestures that fit this little play.
McGinnis knows just who Jerusha is: Alert, eager, good-natured, but not exactly innocent. She’s had a hard-knock life; she knows how to size up her adversaries. She’s smart, smart enough to construct her own sensible moral code. She loves to write, and she’s good at it. She recognizes and admits her mistakes. McGinnis shows us all of this in an instant in her face and her posture. This small, slight, bright-eyed actress made Jerusha as alert and observant as a sparrow. But her poise crumbles comically in Jerusha’s rare, brief bouts of girlish petulance and despair. She’s a girl, not Superwoman. At least not yet.
McGinnis gets Jerusha into her voice, too, in clear, perfectly tuned tones warmed up with vibrato just now and then. She sounds straightforward and open, as Jerusha would. A peculiar nasality marks Hancock’s singing, but his sound is just fine in this context. He correctly dropped to the background in their duets, and in his solos leaned a little toward Rex Harrison parlando style.
Give some credit to the actors, for their elocution; to the music director, for the balance; and to sound designer Gary Ellis, who miked the actors lightly and perfectly. Saturday evening, I got every single word, sung or spoken. Those delicious words, which Jean Webster contrived as Jerusha’s letters 100 years ago, are everything. Those words make Jervis fall in love with Jerusha. They make us fall in love with her, too.
Daddy Long Legs runs through April 1 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center. For tickets, visit the Skylight’s website or call the Broadway Theatre Center box office, 414 291-7800.
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