Nearly a century has elapsed since Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs was published. Now her story of a talented, forthright foundling named Jerusha (from a tombstone) and her mysterious, reclusive mentor, “Mr. John Smith,” returns, this time onstage in an expressive, impressive world premiere musical at the Cincinnati Playhouse.
Playwright-director John Caird (who won a Tony for his Broadway work on Les Miserables) and composer-lyricist Paul Gordon (whose Emma won audience approval at the Playhouse last season) have turned Webster’s evergreen tale into a two-performer evening of grace and delicacy that’s tuneful, true to the original and altogether satisfying.
It’s a sweet, sweet story — no getting around that — the sort of thing adolescent girls once buzzed about and daydreamed over. Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is 18, has completed her education at an orphanage and is preparing to leave the only home she’s ever known. Then comes an astonishing proposal: A mysterious member of the orphanage’s board of trustees will pay her way through college. No strings beyond her striving for success.
He believes Jerusha has the makings of an author. The catch is that he will remain forever anonymous. She must write him a letter each month, reporting her progress, but he'll never reply. One day she gets a glimpse of him climbing into a carriage and, seeing only that he is tall, dubs him Daddy Long Legs. She imagines him to be old. And bald.
Of course, in the way of romantic fiction, she is quite wrong about “Mr. Smith’s” age and state of hirsuteness. He is, in fact, an eligible bachelor millionaire named Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock). Can you doubt that Jerusha will meet Jervis? Can you doubt that romantic sparks will fly? Can you doubt that, all unawares, she will pour out her thoughts and yens about him in her letters to “Smith?” Can you doubt where all of this will end up?
Neat trick No. 1 is how Caird and Gordon keep characters and story simple, clear and intelligent, even trenchant in the telling. Songs and dialogue interweave without effort. Sung and spoken, the words display sentiment without dipping into sentimentality. No treacle washes over things. Conductor Laura Bergquist keeps the musical pacing lyrical but crisp.
Neat trick No. 2 is the well-matched casting of McGinnis and Hancock, both of whom come new to the Playhouse with extensive national credits. Both have polished these roles through two previous runs in California.
McGinnis exhibits Jerusha’s character development neatly from girl-child to woman, from tentative student to accomplished author. It’s very winning work. Hancock slowly peels away Jervis’s chilly reserve and reveals the lover inside. More winning work.
Since it’s Jerusha’s tale, she gets a little more of the music. The score’s strongest song, “The Secret of Happiness,” is first her solo, then their duet.
The plot is not all romance. There are side glances into social issues. Jerusha announces herself to be a Fabian socialist. Act II has moments wherein the social undertone turns into dramatic undertow and an extra song impedes and clutters the build toward the finale. But that’s quibbling.
The Playhouse’s Ed Stern says the script and score are still being tuned. Changes were made since the California performances, and more will likely be made.
Sets and costumes (David Farley), lighting (Paul Toben) and sound design (Michael Miceli) are winners all, especially the graceful way in which Caird makes a dozen or so antique trunks turn into chairs, tables, desks and a bed — even a mountain. Daddy Long Legs is all light and lilt.
DADDY LONG LEGS, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through April 10. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.