Debuting at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre -- in my opinion, one of New England’s very best professional regional theaters -- “Daddy Long Legs” is presented as an example of this season’s theme “American Voices along the American Journey”.
Jean Webster’s original novel (she wrote it while staying in Tyringham, Massachusetts) of the same name was a smash in 1912 as the young 20th Century burst upon a scene of reform, throwing off 19th Century injustices and inequities, sometimes with just a children’s book. Her delightful character, Jerusha Abbott, “the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home”, is given a college education by an unknown benefactor. Webster wrote a successful stage play based on her novel. A handful of films made from 1919 to the 1950s based on the story are probably familiar to most fans of classic films.
This newest, freshest incarnation at the Merrimack Rep, directed by Tony-winner John Caird, who also wrote the book, features a running dialogue in music between Jerusha, played by Ms. McGinnis, and her benefactor, played by Mr. Hancock. The music and lyrics are by Tony-nominated Paul Gordon. They take the form mostly of letters Jerusha writes to “Daddy Long Legs” -- she has nicknamed him this because she has seen only his tall, distorted shadow on a wall.
Ms. McGinnis, whose Broadway credits include Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Women, where she originated the role of Beth, makes her debut at the Merrimack. Her performance is stunning in part because of the sweetness of her clear, soprano voice; in part because of the earnest and honest depiction of a spirited child/woman; and in part because she makes it look so effortless. Much of her stream-of-consciousness letter writing is directed to the audience, so our connection with this character is made very early in the play. She is good natured enough to make wry jokes at her own expense, bold enough to tease Daddy Long Legs, rebellious enough to defy him.
Mr. Hancock also makes his debut at the MRT, having played in the national touring companies of Sky and Mamma Mia!, as well as numerous regional productions. Both Hancock and McGinnis originated their roles in “Daddy Long Legs” for the Rubicon Theatre. A cast album has been produced.
Hancock is charming as a man reserved, dignified, jealous, and ultimately lonely, as disadvantaged in friendship as Jerusha is in society. We may pity him more.
The tone of the play is gently humorous, sometimes poignant, and always thought-provoking. Jerusha’s thirst for knowledge and her dream of being a writer, to make her own contribution, make one wonder if we may ever recapture the optimism and confidence of the early 20th Century.
David Farley, the scenic and costume designer, has created a set that is evocative of the era, both functional and whimsical. Jerusha’s scenes are downstage among a collection of battered steamer trunks of various sizes, while Jervis broods in his office just behind and above her on a low platform. Dark paneled walls frame the space, enclosing his office and her college. Books are upstage, downstage, and sometimes in the trunks they use for tables and seats. They put the trunks together in a pile, a mountain to climb.
At times, when the scenes change, the scrim behind the bookshelves reveals the countryside, or the city. We feel their surroundings open up, even though they are still present for us, and for each other, in the narrow world of spoken letters.
Possibly the most whimsical element to the set design is the handwriting scrawl on the top of the paneled flats stage left and stage right when a new conversation or letter is to begin. The audience got a kick out of that and kept checking the dates and the location of the scene as noted in the handwriting. When Jervis typed a couple of notes, we see the typewritten letters stamped out, accompanied by the sound of an old typewriter, instead of the fluid scrawl. Chuckles from the audience.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre has a winner in “Daddy Long Legs”. It is a romance. It is a family-friendly show. It is an American classic. It is, like the Merrimack Rep, a New England classic. It runs now through March 4th at the Liberty Hall, adjacent to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts. See this website for more details.