It’s a tale of magic, of wonder, discovery and love–Jean Webster’s brilliant novel “Daddy-Long-Legs” has been made into Paul Gordon and John Caird’s most satisfying musical “Daddy Long Legs,” in these most trying of times. It is the perfect selection for a holiday experience for those you love, and is only playing at George Street Playhouse (GSP), in New Brunswick, New Jersey, through Christmas Eve.
Jerusha Abbot (Elise Vannerson) is a heroine in the Dickensian milieu with a soupçon of arch cleverness in the mix. Jean Webster is, after all, Mark Twain’s niece and knows whereof she speaks. Jerusha receives a surprising gift from an anonymous stranger–a full ride to college. For an orphan who has been living in the John Greer Home for most of her life, that’s huge. Of even greater import is that this full-ride scholarship is given to a woman—in the early 1900s—when education was not considered necessary, or desirable, for women. Specifically, the scholarship is designated for Jerusha’s studies to become a writer, based on the essay that dazzled her benefactor, whom she has called “Daddy Long Legs,” on the strength of seeing only the departing shadow of a tall, mysterious man.
Jerusha is to write letters regularly to her anonymous benefactor to advise him about her studies. She is to treat these letters as if she were writing to her family, of which she has none. Jerusha develops some pretty fantastical notions of her benefactor, all of which turn out to be hilariously incorrect, as the man in question is a charitable and wealthy young socialite-turned-Socialist, Jervis Pendleton (Ben Michael). Pendleton is the scion of an old and very wealthy New York family, who sees something more for his investment than buying a boat or another home. The love story that comes through, in letters and arranged “happenstance” meetings, is the stuff of which holidays are made.
These talented newcomers, under the direction of Michael Mastro, GSP’s Resident Artistic Director, tease our heart strings. Darren R. Cohen’s musical direction of the smallest of orchestras—only a piano, a guitar, and a cello—give Gordon’s music and Brad Haak’s Celtic flavored folk orchestrations a four-dimensional color that makes this story timely and timeless at one moment. And oh: the Moments!
Vannerson’s gradual blooming from nascent novice to fully-realized young woman unfolds before your eyes. Her clear and beautiful voice, sharp diction, and nuanced phrasing make the emotions fresh. Her role lets us see the falling away of all that is not the Jerusha-Who-Will-Be, as she comes into the beginning of her power as a voice for change. Michael’s conflicts as “Daddy Long Legs,” and in pretending he is his sister’s uncle, so that he can meet Jerusha, are evident. He has clear and beautiful lines of his own, and the second act especially, with its reprises of Act One’s “The Secret of Happiness,” is so very poignant in a year that for many of us has been one of losses–of family and friends, and of ideals. And “All This Time” is a reminder that, when we slow down, we can often see what was always there if we just take a moment of pause. “My Manhattan” is surely going to be a vocal selection for the cabaret set, as well. This show is a much-needed reminder that knowledge is power and love lights the way.
The original novel, as with the stage adaptation, features the exchanged reading of letters, often as a spoken duet in the trading and blending. Millennials may benefit from seeing that delay of gratification often leads to a deeper enjoyment of someone’s mind and thoughts.
David Saint’s 20th season as GSP artistic director has pulled out all the stops. Get your tickets for “Daddy Long Legs” now www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org
as, on December 24, the adventure comes to a close!