The PCPA Theaterfest production of “Daddy Long Legs” is charming, heartwarming, sentimental and predictable.
This latest incarnation of a story from a novel written a century ago is an evolving love story that requires two actor/singers who can create characters worth caring enough about to inspire a tear when their convoluted story comes to its happily-ever-after moment.
PCPA found just the right actors to pull it off. Ephie Aardema and Kevin Earley, both Equity actors with impressive resumes, bring author Jean Webster’s enduring old tale to new life. The story is told mostly in song, accompanied by a fine live orchestra directed by Julie McBride.
Jerusha, an 18-year-old orphan who has spent her childhood in a gritty orphanage, has a knack for writing, and one of the orphanage’s trustees has decided to put her through college. It is to be an anonymous gift, with the only stipulation that she write to him monthly to tell him how she is doing. He calls himself John Smith, but Jerusha, who has seen his gangly looking shadow as he leaves the orphanage, names him Daddy Long Legs.
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The story has been told in different ways over the years, with versions starring Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor. Perhaps the most memorable was the 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron.
This PCPA production is an all-new musical by John Caird, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, which premiered at the Rubicom Theatre in Ventura in 2009 and has been produced around the country since then. Caird directs this show, and Christina M. Burck is associate director.
In the Astaire and Caron film, Jerusha and Daddy Long Legs were decades apart in age. In this one, they are only a few years apart. While Jerusha imagines her patron as old and gray or bald, he is actually Jervis, a shy member of a wealthy family who shuns the ostentatious trappings of his class and uses some of his wealth for charity.
The plot revolves around the developing relationship between Jerusha and Jervis, both as he remains the mysterious Daddy Long Legs and as he actually meets her as Jervis. In one of her letters to Daddy Long Legs, she tells him of Jervis and writes, “He reminds me of you in much younger days.”
Humor is inherent in their situation, and it seasons the dialogue and songs. The story unfolds from song to song, and both actors have fine, soaring voices as they act while they sing, creating strong characters. Aardema portrays a youthful, vulnerable girl in the beginning, but she becomes spunky and independent as she learns the ways of the world. Her facial expressions and body language express her endearing personality. Earley is likable and sympathetic as Jervis gets himself deeper and deeper into the difficult situation of being two people and becomes terrified of telling Jerusha the truth.
The story, set when it was written 100 years ago, places Jerusha on the threshold of women’s suffrage. She mentions the goal of giving women more social and political power.
There are more than 20 songs, and as in an operetta, most of them move the plot along or express inner feelings rather than being memorable standing alone. The most lyrical is “The Secret of Happiness,” which has lyrics that change as situations change.
The set is a large study lined with books, where Jervis reads Jerusha’s letters and composes replies that he never sends. On the stage below his desk, Jerusha is at college or on vacation on a farm, speaking and singing her letters among an array of trunks from which she pulls changes of costume, seamlessly adding and subtracting skirts or aprons and hats. David Farley is scenic and costume designer.
This is a fine family-friendly show. Because of the demands it puts on its two performers, it’s one of those that could be really good or really bad. This one is charming in an old-fashioned way — an uplifting fairy tale.