Just the name of the musical, Daddy Long Legs, summons up images and expectations. Put any notion of Fred Astaire and the hit song “Something’s Gotta Give” right out of your mind. That chirpy adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel about a seventeen year-old orphan of unknown parentage who is sponsored into a college career by an anonymous benefactor, went far afield from her text. Fred Astaire? Too old. Leslie Caron? Delightful, but unmistakably French, and more than a little stiff in the role. The current version of the story, now in production at International City Theatre, was adapted in 2012 by Tony Award-nominated composer/lyricist Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and book by Tony-winning librettist John Caird (Les Misérables). The book is an epistolary novel, a story told in an exchange of letters between two people, the orphan Jerusha Abbott (Ashley Ruth Jones) and the wealthy scion, Jervis Pendleton (Dino Nicandros), who hides behind the transparently false identity of “Mr. Smith.”
Pendleton is a trustee of the John Grier Home, a grim Nineteenth Century orphanage for girls, that is, if not quite Dickensian, still a cheerless place for a young woman of intelligence and wit who has no outlet for it. After Pendleton made his plan known to the head mistress of the orphanage, Jerusha espies the elongated shadow of her benefactor as he leaves the premises, reminding her of the arachnid, daddy long-legs. “Mr. Smith” believes the girl has great potential as a writer and requires her to send him a letter each month telling of her progress at school. Over the course of her four-year college career, she refers to her anonymous benefactor with the sobriquet, Daddy Long Legs. To her great frustration, he is unresponsive to her letters. She questions him in writing to no avail. Since the story is one detailing a burgeoning love between the two, the characters must meet. By chance, one of her college acquaintances is the niece of Jervis Pendelton. Wanting to know more about Jerusha, he contrives to visit his niece at school and so they meet. She has no idea that Jervis is her “Daddy Long Legs.” He is smitten and she is intrigued. No more needs to said, plot-wise.
This version of Daddy Long Legs is a chamber piece that is almost an opera, with spoken words seamlessly leading into song and back again, with song accounting for ninety percent of the action. Jerusha sings her letters and Jervis sings as he reads them. Ashley Ruth Jones and Dino Nicandros are brilliant together singing flawlessly and passionately to tremendous effect. Director Mary Jo DuPrey capitalizes on their undeniable charm by bringing them off the ICT stage from time to time and into closer contact with the audience. As Jersusha and Smith, they often sing side by side as if totally unaware of the other, separated only by the imagined distance between them. When they are together as Jervis and Jerusha, they move together in subtle, synchronous choreography. And once again, their singing is glorious and deeply moving.
The production is simply staged on a minimalist set by Ellen Lenbergs consisting of a series of arches upstage with a bed and footlocker stage right that signifies Jerusha’s various places of residence. Upstage left, a desk, chair, coat rack, and typewriter delineates Pendleton’s office. The excellent musicians (Blake Baldwin on guitar, Daniel Smith on cello, and Musical Director Bill Wolfe on piano) reside discreetly in the upstage left arch. The lighting plot by designer Donna Ruzika keeps the focus on the actors as they roam about performance space. Kim DeShazo’s costumes fully support period and character. The sound design by Dave Mickey is appropriately transparent. Props are designed by Patty and Gordon Briles, and hair and wigs are designed by Anthony Gagliardi. John Freeland, Jr. manages the stage with the customary invisibility.
Produced by Artistic Director caryn desai, Daddy Long Legs is a triumph for ICT, and fully deserves the spontaneous standing ovation rendered by the audience on the evening I saw the show. Daddy Long Legs runs through March 11 at International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way in Long Beach.