Though Daddy Long Legs is based on a 1912 novel, the 2009 musical adaptation at International City Theatre (ICT) through March 11 has a very modern feel. Its story of an orphaned young woman sent to college by a mysterious benefactor is told mostly (and wonderfully) through song, with melodic tones that enhance its characters’ complicated emotions.
Tony Award-nominated composer Paul Gordon contributed acoustic orchestration and rhyming lyrics to playwright John Caird’s adaption of Jean Webster’s original epistolary novel. Gordon’s music (reminiscent of Windham Hill recordings) weaves together piano, guitar and cello, and it harmonizes the sharp and flat notes of the songs, thus teasing out and heightening the conflicted feelings of the two characters.
True to the spirit and structure of the book, most of the communication between the young Jerusha Abbott (Ashley Ruth Jones) and her hidden sponsor, whom she affectionately calls Daddy Long Legs (Dino Nicandros), is in the form of letters, mostly from her to him, since he insists on remaining anonymous.
This one-sided interaction, in addition to the underlying financial power dynamic, creates an interesting emotional complexity within and between the characters, even though they are mostly physically apart. In his Manhattan office, he becomes intrigued by her written words but cannot act, while she in her room at college imaginatively compensates for his lack of replies.
When we do see them together, she knows him only as her rich friend’s uncle and even writes to “Daddy” about him, which he delightedly reads.
While Jervis Pendleton (Daddy’s real name) had in the past sponsored boys from the same orphanage as Jerusha, she is unusual in that she is not only precocious but also female and insists on a connection with him. Her curiosity defines their relationship. She assumes he is old but wants to know if he is also gray or bald, for instance. (He is, in fact, none of the above.)
Nicandros as Daddy/Jervis and especially Jones as Jerusha sing emotively and excellently, sustaining the complex notes of their songs while interacting believably with each other. Jones expresses Jerusha’s growth beautifully through her singing, from sheltered orphan (“Oldest Orphan” ) to college girl (“Like Other Girls” ) to awakening to feelings (“The Color of Your Eyes” ) to disappointment (“I Couldn’t Know Someone Less” ) to philosophical maturity (“The Secret to Happiness” ).
Meanwhile, Nicandros as Jervis sings of struggling with his deceit (“I’m a Beast” ) and hinted-at insecurities (“The Man I’ll Never Be” ). Jerusha’s growing confidence and independence over the years threaten to take her away from Jervis unless he acts, but how he does so only postpones the truth of who he is and how he feels about her.
The premise of orphan girl reporting to older and wiser benefactor works well for most of the play, with Jerusha’s animated and often humorous letters marking the weeks of her freshman and sophomore years. As things get more complicated later in the second half, however, the situation increasingly demands a resolution that only gets further delayed.
Seamlessly directed by DuPrey, with music direction by Bill Wolfe (who also plays piano richly and assuredly), the whole production is a pleasure to experience. Set design by Ellen Lenbergs offers just enough detail to evoke each character’s respective place— a quilted bed, trunk and bookshelf on her side, and an office desk and strewn books on his. Costuming by Kim DeShazo is similarly streamlined and appropriate to the early 20th-century time period.
While the story of Daddy Long Legs has been adapted into a number of films over the years (including versions with Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire), this production highlights its poignant sentiments. Artistic direction and the actors’ talents combine to create an immersive, unusual and riveting emotional experience that will carry you away on its long legs.
ICT’s Daddy Long Legs continues at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through March 11, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the ICT box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.
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