Dallas — Daddy Long Legs, a two-person musical based on Jean Webster’s early-20th-century chick-lit novel of the same name, proved to be a deliciously sweet, two-hankie show in its regional premiere by Lyric Stage at the Majestic Theatre Friday night.
On the surface, it’s a Cinderella/Pygmalion sort of plot: Jerusha Abbott, a clever orphan girl, writes promising poems and stories, which attract the notice of one of her orphanage’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton. Without having met her, Jervis offers to put her through college under the condition that she write him a letter every month to report her progress and that he will remain anonymous. She assumes he’s elderly, and pours out her heart to him in the letters; he, actually a handsome young man, becomes intrigued by the letters and manages to meet her without revealing his identity as her benefactor. Attraction, frustration, and, ultimately, love ensue.
Playwright John Caird (whose credits include co-writing the English adaptation of Les Misérables, and the world premiere of The Phoenix, about Mozart librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, at Houston Grand Opera next season) managed not only to create a constantly engaging and—like the novel that inspired it—entirely epistolary script. He meanwhile turned the charmingly comical and time-worn plot into a meaningful—dare one say profound?—parable of the development of romantic intimacy. Each of the two protagonists is wise in his/her own way, and foolish in his/her own way—which, of course, ultimately makes them a perfect couple. The unlikely plot, indeed, provides a vehicle for exploring the issue of revelation and concealment that are part of any developing romance—or any functional human relationship, for that matter.
Christopher J. Deaton portrays Jervis as believably aristocratic and convincingly human at the same time, while Samantha McHenry is appealingly but always politely energetic as Jerusha. Both have attractive voices well-suited to this intimate musical, though McHenry tends to overuse a slight catch in her voice at the beginnings of phrases.
Paul Gordon’s score, while not particularly innovative or melodically inspired, provides a calmly elegant foundation, with a compact trio led by Scott Eckert accompanying from the pit. From where I sat, amplification—a tricky issue for a work like this in a 1700-seat theater—was clear but unobtrusive; the venue is about as large as one would want for what is essentially a chamber musical.
Gordon’s lyrics produce some memorable moments. The little act-one triptych of “Like Other Girls,” “Freshman Year Studies,” and “Things I Didn’t Know” forms a nice comical series of catalog songs, while “The Secret of Happiness” provides a calm, subtle anthem for the show. Randel Wright’s sets, dominated by an impossibly tall bookcase and tall, floating windows, communicate an aura of intimate spaciousness, while Catherine Carpenter Cox’s costumes silently narrate Jerusha’s character growth from orphan to independent adult. Staging under director Richard Estes likewise communicates the calm energy and humor of the story.
Now 10 years out from its premiere at the Rubicon Theatre in California, produced with a consortium of other regional theaters with intervening success off-Broadway in New York and in London’s West End, Daddy Long Legs makes its mark not by shock, spectacle, or riveting social statement—but as a quiet, appealing romance, here presented by Lyric Stage in a beautifully appropriate production.