THEATER REVIEW: A young writer's heart belongs to 'Daddy' in tender musical at FST
On occasion, it is a pleasure to sit back and let a new musical charm you, which is just what “Daddy Long Legs” does at Florida Studio Theatre.
There’s nothing ground-breaking or terribly thought-provoking about this show by songwriter Paul Gordon and director John Caird. It’s also comfortably predictable, as you might expect of a musical based on Jean Webster’s 1912 book of the same title.
Yet, the tender story of the relationship between a young woman and the wealthy young man who secretly sponsors her college education, possesses a gentle sweetness that can touch the heart without becoming too saccharine.
That’s possible because of the engaging performances of Penny McNamee, who plays Jerusha Abbott, and Kevin Earley as Jervis Pendleton.
They’re the entire cast in a show that has an unusual and inviting style as it tells Jerusha’s story through letters about her progress in school and her innermost thoughts and feelings.<QL>
When she learns about the college scholarship, Jerusha is told to write an informative letter once a month to her sponsor, but not to expect a response. She assumes that he is a tall older man, either bald or with graying hair, and dubs him Daddy Long Legs. In truth, Jervis is not much older than she.
As Jerusha mostly sings her letters, we see Jervis reading them in his library, often singing along with her in graceful harmonies. Over the course of her first year in school, he finds himself attracted to her spirit. She keeps asking to meet him or to find out what he looks like.
The twist, reminiscent of other plays and stories, is that Jerusha does meet Jervis, but doesn’t know he’s her benefactor. He’s a classmate’s somewhat shy uncle. So Jerusha is unaware that she’s writing to the man she likes when she tells her sponsor how she feels about Jervis. And once they get to know one another, he’s afraid to tell her the truth.
The story unfolds at a gentle pace on an attractive set by David Farley of a rich wooden library and wood floors filled with trunks that represent Jerusha’s changing world.
The two actors have a natural rapport together, even though their characters spend most of the time in different cities (even if the actors are physically only feet apart).
McNamee has a voice perfectly suited to Jerusha’s sweet nature and growing feistiness as she learns more about the world. Earley has a rich voice that conveys both power and softness, helping to make the awkward Jervis seem like more of an appealing catch.
Gordon’s score is pleasant and occasionally emotional, but there’s a sameness to the songs. They’re clearly all of a style and period, but after a while it’s hard to distinguish one song from another. The lyrics convey some wit, though some of the references are a bit more contemporary than 1908 or 1910 might suggest.
Still, “Daddy Long Legs” may put a smile on your face as the show revels in the magic of love.
DADDY LONG LEGS
Music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, book by John Caird. Directed by John Caird. Reviewed Feb. 7, Florida Studio Theatre Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Through April 5. Tickets are $19-$42. 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org