Farmers Branch- The most fun to be had out of The Firehouse Theatre’s engaging online production of Daddy Long Legs is that, unlike the slightly creepy 1955 movie adaptation (“Hey, she’s a French babe, I think I’ll adopt her”), this 2009 musical harks back to the actual letters that make up Jean Webster’s charming, heart-tugging 1912 novel — which once upon a time was a book American girls read about as frequently as Little Women.
Jerusha Abbott (Caitlin Jones), the “oldest orphan at the John Grier Home,” is delighted to hear that a generous gentleman has decided to pay her way through college…anonymously. Jervis Pendleton (Preston Isham), one of the orphanage trustees, has never seen the young woman, but finds himself very amused by a clever essay she wrote — and thinks she “needs a chance” to be educated as a writer.
It’s a simple plot, with a bit of Pygmalion’s transformational bent and a scoche of She Loves Me’s post-office love affair. But it’s fun to watch things play out under Derek Whitener’s calm direction — he lets words, song, and faces carry the story, and isn’t too fussed about forcing action on this essentially talking-heads piece.
Smart, opinionated, lonely Jerusha needs “somebody to love” — and quickly begins to give both her thoughts, and her heart (in a daughterly way), to a man she doesn’t know at all. She assumes he’s old, gray, or possibly bald. He is “Daddy Long Legs” because she once caught a glimpse of his tall shadow against a wall.
Jervis, a rather stiff and shy young philanthropist, lost his mother at an early age. Though rich, he’s a kind of orphan in spirit, and none too fond of his own snobbish family. Jerusha’s letters fill his thoughts in a way he didn’t expect. From a distance, she is free to show him her sunny, independent spirit. She wants a job, some good friends, and to work for what she believes in — equal rights for women, including the vote.
They’re perfect for each other — only about a decade apart in age, with plenty of Anne Shirley’s “kindred spirit” action to bond them over books, politics, theater. (Hamlet? Good to read, but in performance “Perfectly CORKING,” they agree.) You can see this romance coming a country mile.
Firehouse was smart to take on this two-actor musical; it’s a good fit for the online format. The two-camera videotaping setup adds variety, and the presence of a small unseen-but-heard audience gives a hint of “we are there.” The set (by Whitener and Studio 147) is packed with interesting period-look objects apparently collected from the Firehouse community, and music director Bethany Lorentzen leads the accompaniment nicely, though it’s sometimes overpowered by the two singers’ body microphones.
Jones and Isham, who are engaged in real life, have voices that blend pleasingly, and a simple delivery that feels right for two open-hearted, foursquare Americans of the early 1900s. John Caird’s script for the show wisely pulls a great many lines from Webster’s original story, and Paul Gordon’s lyrics do the same—though his melodies are sadly bland and forgettable. (“Like Other Girls” and “The Secret of Happiness” are among the better numbers.)
It’s a problem that the team had to invent lyrics for Jervis that inject a long, drawn-out level of “mangst” (“male angst,” I’m told — is it really a term?) that I didn’t quite believe in. In the original story we never hear from Jervis. We can only guess from clues in Jerusha’s letters what Jervis is feeling, how he is changing and growing himself. He visits her (not as Daddy, but a college classmate’s young uncle) from time to time during her four years of college. We think he might be emotionally involved — but in this version, we know all too well that he agonizes…and debates…and dithers forever about if/how/when to reveal himself. Get over yourself, young man — there’s a happy ending at stake!
Fortunately, Isham takes every chance to counterbalance, showing us plenty of humor and personality as Jervis reads and reacts to Jerusha’s running commentary on life.
That aside, Daddy Long Legs did the trick. I didn’t once during the two hours of the show get up to look for a snack or answer a phone call from a friend. Its sweet romance lifted me away from The Year That Will Never End, and set me down in the optimistic, looking-forward America of 1908-1912. To be back there for a two-week vacay, I’d even wear long skirts — and wait for the vote.