Let's cut to the chase: TheatreWorks' "Daddy Long Legs" is a wonderfully charming and delightful bit of musical comedy that should be just the ticket for anyone looking for some escapism this holiday season.
Based on the classic 1912 young-adult novel by Jean Webster, "Daddy Long Legs" made its world premiere with TheatreWorks back in 2010. The show was written by the powerhouse team of Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (book), who are also responsible for "Emma," another smash-hit literary adaptation, and the theater company's holiday revival last year. TheatreWorks likes to present something special as its year-end production, a sort of heartwarming gift for its patrons, and "Daddy Long Legs" (directed by Robert Kelley) is an excellent choice this time around.
Though it has only a two-person cast, the show manages to create a rich and vivid world.
In 1908, bright-but-unhappy orphan Jerusha Abbott (Hilary Maiberger) is given the chance of a lifetime: A mysterious benefactor/orphanage trustee (Derek Carley), impressed by her humorous and insightful school essay, has decided to pay for her college education, with the condition that she write him regular letters about her academic progress and on the understanding that he will forever remain anonymous and not write back to her. She only catches a glimpse of his shadow on the wall as he's leaving the orphanage, his tall frame reminding her of a daddy-long-legs arachnid, so she decides to address him as "Daddy Long Legs" ("Daddy," for short) in her letters.
And those dazzling, descriptive letters are faithfully written and posted, revealing further Jerusha's skillful way with words, as well as her insights into life. "Daddy" (actually wealthy young philanthropist Jervis Pendleton), despite his commitment to anonymity, soon finds himself falling head-over-heels for his lovely pen pal, and confused as to what to do about it. As luck would have it, he's also the uncle of one of Jerusha's classmates and so finds an excuse to visit and meet her in person. They hit it off, but he's still reluctant to reveal his true identity. Meanwhile, Jerusha tells everything to "Daddy" in her letters, and begs him to make some kind of contact with her, which he does only indirectly: a thoughtful bouquet of flowers when she's ill; a curt note via his "secretary."
Maiberger has the voice and singing style of a Disney princess (in fact, she recently completed a national tour starring in "Beauty and the Beast"), which suits well the light-pop style of the music, and Carley has a debonair charm akin to the young Jimmy Stewart. The best moments of the show are when the two are singing in beautiful harmony which, happily, occurs often throughout.
Rather than an overblown orchestra or cheesy production, the music (directed by William Liberatore) is carried by just a piano, cello and guitar, which gives it a fresh, organic sound. And the songwriting is tuneful and clever, working in plenty of material from the book. Due to the epistolary nature of the show, the lyrics have to deliver a considerable amount of exposition, so there is potential for awkward heavy-handedness. Instead, Gordon's words carry the plot and characterizations along perfectly. My favorite lyrics come from the number "Like Other Girls," in which Jerusha confides to "Daddy" her feelings of isolation and desire to fit in amongst her wealthy and well-adjusted peers. She wants, she sings, to "wear fancy shoes like other girls," for example, and "make lemon pies." But there's a very satisfying twist that shows us (and Jervis) how Jerusha has much bigger dreams than these. The rest of the chorus reveals her other wishes, to "cure disease and write a symphony and win the Nobel prize ... like other girls." No wonder Jervis falls for her; the budding "scientist/moralist/Methodist/Fabian/Freudian/class valedictorian" is a terrific heroine for young girls to look up to. And yes, she's originally dependent on a rich, male patron but she proves she's nobody's pushover or puppet.
The set, by Joe Ragey, is cozy and gorgeous, with dreamy wooden bookshelves teeming with colorful volumes and a window with a backdrop projection that offers twinkling stars, views of Manhattan and the New England countryside, depending on the scene. And though only the backdrop changes, in terms of large set elements, and there are only ever two actors on stage and not much choreography to speak of, Kelley maintains a sense of motion by having Maiberger make excellent use of props. She's constantly packing and unpacking books from steamer trunks and rearranging them on and off shelves. All her costume changes, too, are conveniently stashed in the trunks, ready for seamless transitions.
The story's conclusion is not really in doubt. We know Jerusha and Jervis are meant to be. And yes, it's a bit silly, how long everything drags on (and hearing Jerusha repeatedly address her potential love interest as "Daddy" can feel a bit creepy at times). But it doesn't matter: Watching and hearing it all unfold in such an endearing, tuneful fashion allows us to suspend disbelief. Audience members audibly sighed at certain swoon-worthy moments. I heard one say she had a "silly, sappy grin" on her face for the entire first act. Exactly.
It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for many it will be a sweet and warm winter treat.
What: "Daddy Long Legs"
When: Through Dec. 31; see website for specific show times
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.