To modern ears, there’s something creepy about a story in which a benefactor adopts a pseudonym to influence the life of a girl he becomes infatuated with, and who takes to calling him ‘Daddy’ in her letters. But this new musical – directed and adapted by John Caird from the popular 1912 children’s novel by American writer Jean Webster – reflects an older literary tradition that encompasses Great Expectations with shades of Jane Eyre.
Bright 18-year-old Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis) is miserable and out of place in the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage where inquiring minds are frowned upon. Jerusha’s life is transformed when anonymous trustee ‘Mr Smith’ – who she nicknames ‘Daddy Long Legs’ after spying his gangly outline from a distance – announces in a letter that he will pay for her education. But while she can write to him, she is not to expect a reply.
What unfolds via Jerusha’s letters is part manifesto, part love story. With her heroine as her mouthpiece, Webster attacks ignorance bred of religion and advocates the benefits of education for girls. As her heroine speeds through literary classics and physiology textbooks, she grows in confidence and decides to be a writer. At the same time, she falls for Jervis Pendleton – the uncle of a classmate and, unbeknownst to her, her benefactor.
The show’s witty lyrics are one of its strengths, from a reference to glossy-haired monkeys that blurs natural selection with lineage-based class snobbery, to the itemised letter Jerusha writes in earnest mimicry of one of her science books. McGinnis is on winning form throughout, dodging the wet-blanket status of similar characters to be both charming and ballsy.
She and Robert Adelman Hancock as Jervis succeed in establishing a touching relationship even though their only direct contact until the end is via Jerusha’s letters, which they share between them in song. Hancock’s Mr Rochester-like character has walled himself off in his study, only to crack open his books and re-enter the world as he falls in love with Jerusha’s joyful discovery of it.
There’s a lot to like about this show, not least the comedy of Jerusha complaining to ‘Daddy Long Legs’ about Jervis’s behaviour, unaware that they are the same man. But if this production’s source material is good value, its strict adherence to it is one of its main drawbacks. An epistolary novel is not the easiest fit for a theatrical piece, and there’s a lack of imagination on display here.
As Jerusha and Jervis imitate the voices of friends and family, the production points away from itself, drawing our attention to what starts to feel like missing characters. The privacy inherent in letter-writing loses its impact when sender and recipient are the only people on what is a rather large stage. With everything mediated through words, a sense of airlessness sets in.
This unrelenting atmosphere isn’t helped by Paul Gordon’s songs, which are largely narration put to music, and a kitchen-sink approach that, at one point, sees Jerusha singing about propping a window open. A judicious edit wouldn’t go amiss. The cheesy, Disney-ish score doesn’t do the production any favours either, implying a lush theatrical panorama that falls short at reality and jars with the story’s tone.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the credibility-stretching way in which the penny never drops for Jerusha as to the real identity of Daddy Long Legs. The show is littered with clues, and in a clumsy bit of direction she even appears to recognise him at her graduation. And when the truth does emerge, her reaction to what amounts to a huge abuse of her trust is bizarrely muted.
This production toured the US for three years before coming here, and it’s not hard to see why it has been popular. Anchored by McGinnis’s lovely performance and buoyed up by some witty lines, it tells a sweet, funny story. But by playing it safe, the impression it leaves is as much of what it could be, as of what it actually is.