Aisle View: Her Heart Belongs to Daddy

Megan McGinness and Paul Alexander Nolan in Daddy Long Legs.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Playgoers might have trepidations upon heading to Daddy Long Legs, at the Davenport Theatre (half a block west of the Hirschfeld). This is a musicalization of a long-forgotten American novel by Jean Webster from 1912, about an orphan girl who is sent to college by a mysterious benefactor. She not unnaturally assumes he is a spindly, reclusive old man; hence "Daddy-Long-Legs," as Webster called him. It turns out that he is not a spindly reclusive old man, but rather--well, I suppose you've already figured out precisely what happens.

Said trepidation might increase upon arriving at the tiny hole-in-the-wall theatre--with rest rooms that look like they were indeed built for a 1912 orphanage--and discovering that this new musical features a cast of two. (Webster's hit 1914 play adaptation had sixteen roles, launching the career of Ruth Chatterton; the 1952 West End musical version--Love from Judy, which ran 600 performances and featured a score by American songwriter Hugh Martin--had twenty-five plus full complements of singers, dancers, and child actors.)

This Daddy Long Legs starts with unhappy orphan Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis) singing about how she is an unhappy orphan. Once she is sent to a progressive "women's" college (modeled on Vassar), she writes letters to her Daddy Long Legs--who turns out to be the not-so-reclusively-spindly Jervis Pendleton (Paul Alexander Nolan). She sings, or speaks, as she writes; he sings, or speaks, as he reads. After fifteen minutes, it becomes clear that with no other actors waiting in wings, this is all there is going to be.

Then comes a song called "Like Other Girls," which is pretty good. Then another ("What Does She Mean By Love"), followed by an even nicer one ("The Color of Your Eyes"). By the time they get to the best in the string, "The Secret of Happiness," you realize that there is some effective musical storytelling here. Midway through that first act Jerusha says that the most important quality to have is imagination, and that just about describes this musical Daddy Long Legs.
Paul Alexander Nolan and Megan McGinnis in Daddy Long Legs.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The evening is most notable for the performance by Ms. McGinnis, who might be remembered as Beth, the sweet sister who dies in the Sutton Foster version of Little Women in 2005. Rather than being defeated by that baldly expository opening number ("The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home"), McGinnis soon charms us, sweeping us along on her adventures as a college girl-turned-writer. She is evenly paired with Paul Alexander Nolan, whose performance as the radical revolutionary Strelnikov was one of the only interesting things in last spring's Doctor Zhivago. Nolan is as sweetly sympathetic here as he was harshly disruptive in Zhivago. Together, they help make the most of Daddy Long Legs.

Music and lyrics come from Paul Gordon, with book and direction by John Caird. The team's one Broadway visit came with the bloated musicalization of "Jane Eyre," back in 2000; if memory serves, the score was superior to the rest of the affair. They have since served up adaptations of Jane Austen's "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility," both of which were acclaimed in regional productions. These literary musicals have lengthy incubation periods before the hoped-for New York engagement; Daddy Long Legs premiered at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California back in 2009.

Caird is a major force in the English theatre, having served as Trevor Nunn's co-director on both Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables. It is no surprise, then, that the new show is staged effectively (on a comfortably bookish unit set by David Farley). Unlike Jane Eyre, Daddy Long Legs is not ponderously overdone. The two-character scheme allows the new show to be the opposite of the first, and it certainly makes the production economical.

But the letter-by-letter format inevitably leads to too many similar sections, and the authors are mighty lucky to have McGinnis center-stage. With McGinnis and Nolan playing the romance, Daddy Long Legs has charm to spare. You might even find yourself thinking of She Loves Me, that other musical centering around letters and an unknown correspondent. But She Loves Me has five major characters supporting the lovers; it also has Bock & Harnick at their best. Daddy Long Legs, ultimately, has a girl writing (and singing) letter after letter, and a man reading (and singing) them.

Daddy Long Legs opened September 28, 2015 at the Davenport Theatre