Updated: Jun 20
Jervis: “I didn't know that she'd be so clever!"
Will no one pity the postman?
Two centuries of novels and plays would have run aground without these couriers delivering menace, promise and revelation with their morning letters. And that mailbag is unusually full in "Daddy Long Legs," a sweetly sung musical adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, predicated on the lengthy correspondence between a pert orphan and the anonymous benefactor who sends her off to college.
On the stage of Yorba Linda High School’s Forum Theater, itself not much bigger than a postcard, the adorable Claire Marshall (“Hello Dolly,” “Wonderful Town,” “Drowsy Chaperone”) as Jerusha and the poised Karson Bollinger (“You Can’t Take It With You,” “Drowsy Chaperone”) as Jervis relate the tale while two musicians huddle, tucked away house left partially hidden behind a curtain: Ashley Ng, cellist, and the inimitable Rod Bagheri on an incredible piano accompaniment.
Daddy Long Legs is a stage musical with charm to spare, with a book by John Caird, and music and lyrics (an exquisite score) by Paul Gordon, originally developed as part of the Ann Deal/Fashion Forms Plays-in-Progress Series at Rubicon Theatre in Ventura County, California back in 2007, and eventually premiered in London's West End in 2012, then Off-Broadway at the Davenport Theatre in 2015.
Set in turn-of-the-century New England, the musical tells the story of orphan Jerusha Abbott of the John Grier Home and her mysterious almsgiver who agrees to pay her college tuition, who she dotingly dubs "Daddy Long Legs" after seeing his elongated shadow. Under the conditions of her benefactor, Jerusha sends her trustee (who calls himself John Smith) a letter once a month, letters that he will never answer, describing her new-found experiences with life outside the orphanage. “These are his orders / this is his game,” she sings. And what a game it is.
But Jerusha can’t abide his alias. “Why couldn’t you have picked out a name with a little personality?” she protests, imagining him to be old and gray. All the while, Jerusha continues to pour her heart out through letters, telling him anything and everything, never guessing to whom she is writing. As the story unfolds, and as Jervis is made aware of Jerusha’s every feeling – including her thoughts on him – he begins to take a more active role in steering her life.
What Jerusha doesn’t know is that Daddy, whose actual name is Jervis Pendleton, isn’t so geriatric after all and that the affable impertinence of her letters has made him fall in love. Soon he is contriving to meet her, without ever admitting his philanthropy.
To watch Ms. Marshall’s Jerusha awaken to love and literature, with her bright spirit, mass of curly hair and dulcet soprano, is a great treat. And harmonizing in every way, Mr. Bollinger is softly debonair and has a tender tenor that nicely encircles Ms. Marshall’s voice in their duets.
Yes, this Cinderella story has some serious legs, and John Caird’s book has much appeal, having previously collaborated with Gordon on the Broadway production of "Jane Eyre" as well — a story that has thematic resonance here.
As Jerusha, Claire Marshall sparkles with her powerful, pitch-perfect performance. From the moment we hear the sharp sound of her steps marching onto the stage as she sings about her “perfectly awful day,” she presents a plucky and persevering young woman. In the first 10 minutes, she deftly displays the breadth of her acting skills and, in Ms. Marshall’s hands, the audience sees “poor Jerusha Abbott” never as a victim of her circumstances again, but always as a fighter. Viewers sympathize and delight in concert with her intellectual and romantic awakenings. And her singing? Simply beautiful throughout – “I’m a Beast” and “Graduation Day” especially were moving.
Karson Bollinger, as Jervis, endears himself to us. However unhinged we may be about “the color of his lies” and his admitted duplicity (“I’m ashamed of the man I’ve become”), it’s impossible not to feel affection toward his smitten, fumbling ways, especially when he’s overcome with jealousy, leading to some of the play’s most comical moments (damn that boy Jimmy!). Mr. Bollinger’s beguiling, elegant performance rescues a character about whom viewers might otherwise feel put-off. His solo, “Charity,” was especially touching and garnered much applause from the audience.
The most poignant literary reference in the lyrics is the melodically haunting, repeated refrain of “O Captain! My Captain” – a reference to the elegy by Walt Whitman. The phrase is introduced early on by Jerusha in a letter and adopted by Jervis who echoes the refrain. It is in moments like this that Jervis and Jerusha appear to be in perfect harmony, mutually leading each other throughout the course of the play and ultimately to their final union.
Jerusha: "Once upon a time, O Captain! My Captain! I'm so many years behind, I'm still so many years behind.”
Jervis: “I never dreamed of such imagination. I never read thoughts so expressive! I really must abstain. Well, maybe one more letter...”
Seen through modern eyes, this old-fashioned love story may have a few undertones, though Ms. Marshall, who also directs the production, avoids the merest hint of intimacy, which does a lot to mitigate the relationship. The only physicality is a soft hug at the end. A wrong intonation would give a lyric like “Daddy, I’m no good at being bad” some confusing implications. But it’s still a bit unseemly to most that Jervis woos Jerusha without disclosing his identity, and at least a little disconcerting that this proto-feminist tale ends with its plucky heroine bonding with the man who has manipulated her for the past four to five years. Perhaps a letter of complaint?
The handsome high profile office set, designed and constructed by Dru Huston and Brandon Bollinger, is presented as Jervis’ world. Spatially, he dominates: His book-lined office takes up a majority of the stage while Jerusha’s world (a much more undefined space represented by groups of stacked trunks and cases) exists only on the periphery; the space surrounding it, and set just beneath his. Yet Jerusha, operating always on the boundary, places her directly in front of the audience. And while Jervis may be influencing and manipulating Jerusha’s life, the staging often makes Jervis seem like a postscript to Jerusha’s commanding presence. She is, after all, the play’s narrator, and writes her story, one letter at a time.
Director Claire Marshall explains the main theme of the show – “Daddy Long Legs stresses that no act of charity goes without notice, or without consequences, for better or worse, through both the giver and the recipient.” That pretty much sums it up.
Produced by Kris Huston, and Stage Managed by Jacqueline Lembesis, with Costumes by Janelle Betts, the Props are by Karla Bollinger, Lights by Eric Lowy, Sound by Nolan Atkins, and Spotlights by Gracie Hurst and Max Greene.
Yorba Linda High School Forum Theater’s magnificently sung production, which ran January 31st-February 1st, totally captured audiences, including myself, in a shimmering tangle of love, letters and even a bit of pretense. One utterly charming musical!
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report