“Daddy Long Legs” began life in 1912 as Jean Webster’s beloved young-adult novel. And, boy, does that novel have legs. There have been umpteen adaptations for the stage and screen, including Shirley Temple’s “Curly Top” (1935) and a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron (1955). Composer and lyricist Paul Gordon and scriptwriter John Caird’s musical adaptation is now striding the stage at Florida Studio Theatre; Caird also directs this two-person play.
The plot: A ragtime-era millionaire (who prefers to remain anonymous) pays for a precocious orphan girl’s college education. His only condition? As training for a future writing career, she must write him long letters on a regular basis, expecting no replies. She does — and nicknames him “Daddy Long Legs,” based on a glimpse of his lanky shadow. Jerusha (Penny McNamee), the orphan in question, blossoms at college.
Jervis Pendleton (Kevin Earley), the millionaire in question, becomes enthralled by the personality revealed in the orphan’s missives. He arranges to meet her on various occasions but doesn’t reveal that he’s “Daddy.” Jerusha assumes her benefactor is old and bald. He isn’t. So, they meet; flowering feelings are frustrated; complications ensue. Do they get together in the end? Hey, does Oliver Twist get more gruel?
This sweet story is served up with deft directing, clever staging and winning performances.
In addition to being a fine playwright, Caird wrote the book on directing (“Theatre Craft: a Director's Practical Companion from A-Z”). He shows a sure hand in this production.
On top of everything else, the play is technically demanding. (It’s a touring production, so much expertise came with the tour.) Set and costume designer David Farley inventively builds Jerusha’s transitory life out of rearrangeable trunks and suitcases. Paul Toben’s original lighting design flashes fragments of correspondence on walls and helps move the narrative along. And Corinne Aquilina had her work cut out as musical director.
In this musical, speech and song aren’t neatly cut and dried. Millionaire and orphan share the same stage in Caird and Gordon’s adaptation. The conceit is that they’re in separate cities. They don’t really meet until the end. Until then, Jerusha vocalizes her letters; Jervis responds. The result: a counterpoint between two overlapping monologues that occasionally harmonize — literally. The characters sing the unrhymed prose of their letters and thoughts — as in "Recitatif." It’s all extremely clever, though it all tends to sound the same. No musical number stands out, but the music serves the story, and that’s as it should be.
McNamee and Earley are both great singers. As actors, they nicely inhabit their characters, and put in deeply human performances in what would otherwise feel like so much dramaturgical artifice.
But there are times the heavy machinery clunks. And Webster’s young-adult source material occasionally groans under the weight of the adaptation.
The original was light-hearted, light stuff — an epistolary novel that was not big on plot. (See for yourself at gutenburg.org.) It’s more about Jerusha’s self-actualization at college; her joie de vivre, expressed in her letters. These, by agreement, are one-sided. “Daddy Long Legs” is implied, but not revealed until the end.
Take Jerusha’s bubbly words out of her letters and put them in the mouth of a young actress and she just seems chirpy. Put the implied millionaire on stage and he seems feckless. And they’re both so relentlessly good.
Ah well. Not every playwright can be David Mamet or Joe Orton. So, it’s a sentimental play, steeped in love for a more sentimental time. If that’s your cup of tea (and a very sweet cup of tea it is) you’ll love it.
The opening-night audience did.
IF YOU GO
“Daddy Long Legs” runs through April 5, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.
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