Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Daddy Long Legs" Spins a Web of Romantic Duplicity

Danielle Bowen and Allan Snyder Star in "Daddy Long Legs" Credit: Michael Henninger


Mention the words orphan and theater in the same breath and most people will think "Annie," the perennially popular musical about a spunky redheaded waif whose life is changed by a beneficent protégé.

Thanks to the efforts of the staff at Pittsburgh Public Theater, area audiences are now getting their first look at another orphan girl, this one a little more mature and reserved than her brash younger counterpart.

The setting for "Daddy Long Legs" is 1908-1912 New England, and the two character musical. certainly evokes the mood and sensibility of the period. The lights go up on the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home, the graceful, poised 18-year-old Jerusha Abbott. Parent-less from birth whoever named her borrowed her first name from a tombstone inscription, her last from one of the first entries in a phone book.

Early on she eyes a Daddy Long Legs spider crawling about in her room. Soon after, she fleetingly spies the long and slim shadow of one of the orphanage trustees as he walks away. It belongs to Jervis Pendleton, a man soon to become her benefactor.

Into her rather humdrum existence comes a consequential message that promises a way out of her dead end life. An anonymous donor preferring to go by the name John Smith has decided to finance her way through a prestigious college. The only catches are that she must write him one letter each month, that they never meet and that he will never respond to her missives.

The structure of the narrative is rather unusual in that it’s not only almost entirely sung but also that the dialogue consists almost solely of the contents of Jerusha’s letters, either as she pens them or as Jervis reads them. As she discloses to her benefactor her coming-of-age experiences - learning French, making consequential friends at school, spending the summer on a farm, writing a first novel and visiting Manhattan for the first time, Jervis is drawn in by her prose and becomes first curious, then attracted, then controlling and manipulative of his charge, ten years younger than himself.

Providing the musical accompaniment to the play’s nearly two dozen songs is a trio made up of  a piano, cello and guitar, played by musicians who sit stage left and perform  solidly under the command of music director F. Wade Russo. As befitting the tone of the musical, the songs are both simple and pleasant enough but lack variance and "memorability."

Danielle Bowen  is a glowing and optimistic Jerusha who comes with a sweet disposition, a probing intellect and an active imagination. She sees her benefactor as a tall and gangly octogenarian and wonders, then comes right out and asks in a letter, is he bald? Is he old?

Little does she know what the audience knows - that he’s neither. When Jervis comes to visit her on surreptitious occasions under the guise if visiting his niece, who’s also a student at the same college, he grows ever more attracted to her. She in turn, develops an ever-growing affection for him and writes of her maturing esteem and regard for him in letters to her benefactor.

Despite his wealth and prominence, Jervis is neither bloated not pretentious. Instead, Allan Snyder imbues his character with down-to-earth sensibilities, although he’s not above deviousness when interfering with Jerusha’s plans that involved a male friend and possible rival she’s encountered.

A Dulcet Duet Credit: Michael Henninger
World’s apart socially and economically, the two characters are also separated on stage. Jervis occupies the upper back half of the proscenium where set designer, Michael Schweikardt, creates a handsome study with volumes of books lining the backdrop of shelves. Meanwhile, Jerusha moves around the front of the stage going from chest to chest, pulling out props and costumes when needed and singing rhapsodically with a sunny disposition.

Both actors are making their Public Theater debut, have splendid singing voices that are especially resonant in duet and are buttressed by the solid direction of Ted Pappas, the theater’s producing artistic director..

With motifs akin to "Cinderella" and "My Fair Lady," one of the play’s major themes could be women’s role in society. Set in the era before the fairer sex had the right to vote and when not many attended college, Jerusha questions her inability to participate fully in political life and pursue a career that goes much beyond housewifery.

Near the end of the musical, when Jerusha is rudely awakened to the reality of Jervis’ duplicity, she, embarrassed by her confidential and intimate admissions to her benefactor, recoils in shame and disgust. Her drawing back seems an imposing obstacle to further romance that cannot be resolved.

Like the patron who walked out of the theater before me wondering to his partner how the playwright could overcome this plot-blocking hurdle, I tried to untangle this Gordian knot in my own mind in the waning moments of the play. Alas, to no avail, and I left that job to the playwright.

Speaking of which, John Caird is credited with writing the book, abetted by Paul Gordon, who wrote the music and lyrics. The duo penned the Tony Award-nominated musical, "Jane Eyre," based on Charlotte Bronte’s novel about yet another orphan. If you go, you can read their impressive credentials in the playbill.

The story has even deeper roots that go back to a novel of the same title written in 1912 by Jean Webster, the grand-niece of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.
Seven years after the book was published, actress Mary Pickford was cast in a silent film version. Years later, in 1955, Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron starred in another rendering loosely based on the book.

This feel-good, benign story of an eccentric romantic entanglement is appropriate for all ages and will probably appeal most to a certain more sedate segment of the theater audience. But for those looking for more in the way of dramatic action, a bit of emotional tension and a more complicated and challenging plot, the show might induce a mild sense of arachnophobia.

"Daddy Long Legs," a Pittsburgh Public Theater production, is at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through April 9. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or order online at ppt.org.

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