Theater review: 'Daddy Long Legs' at Rubicon Theatre Company
“Daddy Long Legs,” the new chamber musical by John Caird and Paul Gordon, has two things going for it: a completely winning performance by Megan McGinnis and the kind of rags-to-riches Cinderella saga that never fails to draw in the matinee crowd. Other than that, it’s pretty much your standard sentimental melodrama, with an easy-listening score that could make Andrew Lloyd Webber seem like Bach.
The production, which had its world premiere Saturday at Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura under Caird’s cozy direction, is based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, which has given rise to numerous stage and screen dramatizations. Why has the material proved so compelling? Well, Freudians, the tale revolves around a poor foundling girl whose sprightly ability as a writer attracts a wealthy gentleman to spring for her college education, in what turns out to be a down payment on her heart.
The gaping age difference of the characters in the loosely adapted 1955 film with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron can offend today’s more vigilant sensibilities. (Dr. Phil would very likely blow a gasket.) But Caird’s book goes to great lengths to make Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock) seem like a perfectly suitable match for Jerusha, thus ridding the story of a thread of potential creepiness.
During the first half of this two-character epistolary drama, I found myself utterly absorbed in the situation of this bright and forlorn charmer, who’s granted an unexpected opportunity for personal advancement. A budding writer, she dives into her education with all the dedication of a down-and-out boy in Dickens similarly blessed with a second shot.
As part of the peculiar agreement, Jerusha regularly writes letters to her benefactor, updating him on her life and the progress of her education and fictional outpourings. She’s told he won’t respond, but having grown up in the John Grier Home for Orphans, she can’t help being tantalized by his favor.
Likewise, Jervis, who goes by the not very convincing name of Mr. John Smith, has trouble keeping his feelings in check. He lives for her adorably bouncy missives, and when she suffers setbacks and doubts, he tortures himself with guilt over not being man enough to reveal himself to her.
Neither Caird's book nor Gordon’s songs are especially effective at explaining Jervis’ motivation—he’s made out to be a tender-hearted commitment-phobe, who’s scared of the burdensome responsibility the better part of him clearly cherishes. The ruse this mystery man plays on Jerusha, introducing himself to her not as Mr. Smith (his cover) but as the distant uncle of one of her rich classmates (his true identity), isn’t particularly well set up. Worse, the whole masquerading dilemma bogs down in the second act, when it’s patently obvious how things are going to end and we wish the two would just get on with it already and stop reprising forgettable numbers from the first half.
Caird, a Tony-winning director best known for his productions of “Les Misérables" and “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” knows how to assist the storytelling through his staging, even if he overdoes the buttery underscoring. One example of this is the way he keeps Hancock’s back to the audience for a good portion of the first act. Jervis needs to remain a mystery, but equally important, it’s McGinnis who inspires our affection, and so the spotlight deserves to follow her.
Truth be told, McGinnis, who has been building a solid Broadway resume (including a leading role in the revival of "Les Misérables"), could no doubt have handled this as a one-woman show. Indeed, the actress’ small exquisite voice and endearing presence are overdue for a star-making vehicle. But while the book could easily be finessed, Gordon’s songs have little to recommend them other than a melodic innocuousness and, every now and again, a pleasing lyrical directness. An actress can enjoy a nice ride on such a commercial property, but she definitely won’t be launched into the stratosphere by it.
Hancock brings a romantic dapperness to Jervis, a character who’s forever reminding us in word and song (“She Thinks I’m Old”) that he’s still young. To the extent that he doesn’t dampen any romantic illusions, he fulfills the basic requirement of the underwritten role, but his portrayal doesn’t add any depth.
The physical production, miniaturized out of necessity for Rubicon’s small space, creates a quaint storybook atmosphere. David Farley’s set divides the stage into Jervis’ book-lined Manhattan study and a trunk-strewn series of private and public locales for Jerusha to daydream in. Just as good are Farley’s period costumes and Paul Toben’s dusky lighting. The main complaint is the paltry sound of the orchestra, led by musical director and keyboardist Laura Bergquist.
For a while, “Daddy Long Legs” trapped me in its web, but the predictable show wasn't able to hold me as the flimsy plot stretched thin. Yet for those who simply want to enjoy a happy cry, this musical throwback probably won't disappoint.
"Daddy Long Legs, Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 8. $39-$59. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Photo: Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock. Credit: Jeanne Tanner, www.jeannetanner.com