Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Margin Notes: Daddy Long Legs

Megan McGinnis as Jerusha Abbott. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Seen on: Monday, 9/14/15.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Jerusha Abbott, an orphan with more energy and wit than is desired at the John Grier Home, finds herself suddenly sponsored by an unknown trustee for a full university education to help her pursue a career as a writer, with the only stipulation being that she send letters to her "Mr. John Smith" benefactor, apprising him of her progress. This two-character chamber piece, based on Jean Webster's 1912 novel of the same name, first premiered in 2009 at the Rubicon Theatre Company (starring its current lead Megan McGinnis) and has toured both regionally and internationally, leading up to its Off-Broadway debut.

What I Knew Beforehand
I loved Paul Gordon's last Broadway musical, Jane Eyre, and I knew that this show was a reunion between its two writers, Gordon and John Caird. I knew nothing about the plot, but I was so excited to see his new work.


Play: Perhaps the plot itself, as summarized, isn't the most compelling story. But - I say this as someone who herself has written an epistolary play - it comes down to the storytelling, and in that the show is largely successful. It's like if you went poking in the attic of a distant relative and found a packet of letters tied with a ribbon - it's a sweet valentine, a simple clear view into a young woman's mind as her horizons expand. The narrative itself isn't as intensely shattering as that of Jane Eyre, Gordon and Caird's previous collaboration, but it is still engaging and light, as warm-hearted as its heroine. Gordon's score bubbles and trips along, and Caird's book is funny and economic. If I were to register a complaint, it's that there is a bit of a tonal inconsistency between the two characters - Jervis's songs are a bit emptier, and feel somehow more contemporary than Jerusha's. Maybe it's McGinnis's legit soprano against Nolan's pop-ier tenor. Maybe it's the sliding notes he's given, which are largely absent from her songs. Maybe it's just that his songs have far less story to tell - he reacts, while she lives. His numbers aren't necessarily bad, but they're distinctly less engaging than hers. Luckily, most of the show is hers, so you'll still leave smiling and content. (also for fellow nerds, there's a shout out to Jane Eyre that I'm sure the writers just couldn't resist!)

Cast: Megan McGinnis is instantly engaging as Jerusha, high-spirited and eager to drink full of life's opportunities. Most of the show's weight rests on her shoulders, and she carries it brilliantly across Jerusha's four years in school, letter after letter. The structure of the show could have grown quickly tiresome in less capable hands. Paul Alexander Nolan's Jervis is in fine voice, if a little stiff, but perhaps that's the character. His sculpted face is a bit inscrutable, which may be Jervis or which may just be the actor himself. In any event, when he hits his high notes, you don't mind much either way.

Design: The newly-christened Davenport Theatre, which in my nostalgic mind is still the home of Forbidden Broadway, is an intimate and cozy space, made more so by David Farley's warm set - wood-paneled walls, shelves and shelves of books, the floor scattered with weather-beaten trunks, a desk, a lamp, a typewriter, a wicker trash bin. And up behind the mezzanine of books, the orchestra hides (an arrangement by Brad Haak of piano and strings, sweet and simple). As the story progresses, the shelves acquire a collage of Jerusha's letters, as the lip of the stage  is covered with an increasingly dense border of her school books. Farley's costumes begin with Jerusha in blousey, billowy ensembles that gradually become more ordered and monotone as she matures; Jervis, meanwhile, starts in a mustard-colored three piece suit, but gains a colorful waistcoat as Jerusha's influence on him increases.


Running: Now playing at Davenport Theatre - Opening: September 28, 2015.
Category: musical
Length: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book: John Caird
Based on: the novel by Jean Webster
Music & Lyrics: Paul Gordon
Director: John Caird
Designers: David Farley (Set & Costume), Paul Toben (Lighting), Peter Fitzgerald (Sound), Brad Haak (Music Direction, Arrangements, & Orchestrations).
Cast: Megan McGinnis, Paul Alexander Nolan, Hannah Corneau, Will Reynolds.

Paul Alexander Nolan and Megan McGinnis as Jervis Pendleton and Jerusha
Abbott. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

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