As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of The Dio’s “Daddy Long Legs,” on May 4, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:
The fairy godmother myth has a nearly irresistible pull on us all – and that’s precisely how “Daddy Long Legs,” now playing at Pinckney’s The Dio – Dining & Entertainment, begins.
The musical, based on Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel (which was also adapted into a 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron), tells the story of a plucky, clever teenage orphan, Jerusha (Emily Hadick), who lands an anonymous patron, on the basis of essays she’s composed, for a college scholarship. The sole condition is that Jerusha must write monthly letters to her benefactor, despite being told that the letters will neither be read nor returned.
Because Jerusha only saw the long shadow cast by her benefactor upon leaving the orphanage, she nicknames him Daddy Long Legs in her letters, and lovingly shares her thoughts and observations as if writing to the family she’s never, ever had. On the receiving end, young, aristocratic philanthropist Jervis Pendleton (Alexander Benoit) ultimately can’t resist Jerusha’s charm and wit, reading her letters with ever-greater emotional investment. But as time passes, and Jerusha nears the end of her studies, she grows more and more independent, and Jervis – who’s now met and spent time with Jerusha, by way of being an uncle to one of her roommates – feels trapped by his complicated situation.
The stage musical adaptation of “Daddy Long Legs” – with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, and a book by John Caird – premiered in 2009 in California before being produced in London’s West End in 2012, and Off-Broadway (a production that was live-streamed) in 2015. The Dio’s production, which closes May 20, marks the show’s Michigan premiere.
DC: I’ll be honest: I went into “Daddy Long Legs” knowing little about it, and after the first few minutes, I figured it was not going to be my cup of tea – that it was going to be the equivalent of a “chick flick.” Instead, I found myself quite invested in the story.
JM: What got you past that initial resistance?
DC: It was the characters and how well defined they were. They took us on a journey, during a time in our country’s history when change was in the air, and I found their story to be quite engaging because of how different it was. It was more than a love story; it was a love story wrapped in a history lesson.
JM: It’s funny to hear you say this, because I felt an initial resistance for an entirely different reason: the idea of an older man “grooming” a young woman that he has power and control over and, along the way, falls in love with – that raises lots of red flags for me (not to mention associations with shows like “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi”).
DC: I can see that, but Jervis hadn’t planned on getting involved in Jerusha’s life whatsoever – just as he didn’t with the boys whose educations he paid for. It’s only because of the letters he received that he started falling in love with her. That was not part of his original plan.
JM: But like those more famous shows, the woman that this man helps to “create” starts gaining her own bit of power and control as she grows more independent and, in this case, finishes her degree. So although Jerusha has Jervis to thank for the opportunity to earn her degree, she doesn’t owe him her love unless she chooses to give it.
DC: You’re right; she doesn’t. But it’s also important to remember that Jerusha hadn’t a clue Jervis was in love with her until relatively late in the show. And so for much of the performance it’s almost two love stories in one: He was falling romantically for the woman he was getting to know through her letters (and later, the visits in which she didn’t know who he really was), while she was developing non-romantic feelings for a man she pictured to be a grandfatherly type.
JM: I liked that the song “Charity” kind of dealt with the messy ethics of the whole dynamic between them. Jervis sings about how charity, on a basic level, had put a wall up between them – and it’s very true.
DC: I totally agree.
JM: Still, seeing that classic gendered power dynamic, especially in our current moment, made me a bit itchy from the outset. Because we, of course, know that a love narrative is in the offing. This IS a musical, after all. Plus, I was curious about him being so firm about not reading or responding to her letters, and then, he reads them right from the outset.
DC: Yes, but remember: She impressed the heck out of him with the initial essay she wrote trying to get the scholarship – so much so, that he decided to make her his first-ever female recipient so that she wouldn’t waste her talent on marriage. So he had a vested interest in her from the start, which made this different from the earlier scholarship winners. Plus, her letters were so damn entertaining! How could he resist after that first one?
JM: Yes, and the exchange of letters was central to the show’s charm. It really takes you back in time, and makes you feel like one thing that we’ve lost with technological progress is that sense of mystery we once had about each other. So many details on all of us are merely a quick Google search away. But there’s something really beautiful about two people getting acquainted by externalizing their thoughts via letters.
DC: Yes – and trust me: Boys would never write such interesting letters to another guy!
JM: Ha! And Jervis did say he detested writing them, and that’s why he wouldn’t answer. He’d clearly be outmatched by Jerusha’s whimsical, fun reports.
DC: By a mile, yes!
JM: I just like how letters strip away everything else from the equation, so that what you’re getting is Jerusha’s inner life, uncensored. And that that’s what Jervis falls in love with is sweet and moving.
DC: Very much so. In her letters, Jerusha is open, honest, vulnerable, funny, frustrated, upset, charming – she simply writes what she feels at any given moment. And it’s especially intriguing because her sponsor is nothing like she pictures him to be, so she talks to him that way.
JM: It’s a nicely balanced show, even though Jervis never writes to Jerusha as himself, and only shoots off brusque notes to her in the guise of his “secretary.” The show’s creators had to figure out how we’d see Jervis’ thoughts and feelings, since everything Jerusha shares with us is in the form of her letters, so they have him kvetching and plotting and taking joy in her letters out loud. Which is to say, thank God it’s not like “Love Letters,” in that there’s enough movement on stage for us to have something to watch, not just listen to.
DC: I was just about to say the same thing! I much prefer how the concept was utilized here as well.
JM: Some of this, I’m sure, is the creators’ design, but I also credit director Steve DeBruyne for making an epistolary show visually engaging. And with a running time of three hours, there’s a lot to consider in this vein along the way.
DC: Very much so. There were lots of “little things” the characters did to help keep us engaged – various era-appropriate props by Eileen Obradovich, for example, and character-defining costumes by Norma Polk.
JM: What did you think of the show’s music?
DC: The songs, of course, told the story. The lyrics, I thought, were excellent. Unfortunately, I don’t remember a single tune from the show.
JM: Many songs seemed so similar musically that it felt like variations on a theme. That may be deliberate, of course, but it also meant that by late in the second act, you’re like, “OK, reveal yourself already, Jervis!!!”
DC: (laughs) And yet despite the thematic similarities across the songs, I can’t remember a single melody; they’re not memorable at all. What did you think of the projections used throughout the show?
JM: They were brief and subtle enough to just clue us in to the passage of time. So I found them effective, and they didn’t take me out of the “time machine” feel of the show.
DC: I just wish some of them – like indicating what year it is – would have stayed around a little longer. A few too many times I was looking at something else and only caught a momentary glimpse of the projection, and so it didn’t register.
JM: In reference to that “time machine” element, the show’s length and pace did serve to remind me of how rush-rush we’ve all become. “Daddy Long Legs” kind of forces you to turn your phone off, slow down, and absorb its story and songs at an old-fashioned pace – which I so appreciate, but also had to adapt to over the first few songs.
DC: I think we’ve become so used to the 75-90 minute play these days that we’ve come to expect a much faster pace. And yet, it didn’t really SEEM like an almost three-hour runtime, either.
JM: Let’s get into performances and tech. Opening thoughts?
DC: I thought Emily Hadick was wonderful. Her voice, movement and facial expressions were all perfectly executed, and so you couldn’t help but fall in love with her performance.
JM: She has an interesting line to toe: be young and spunky, but not too bubbly, lest she annoy or work against the smart, “talented writer” part of her character. And I think Hadick just killed it. Jerusha’s on the cusp of adulthood, and whip-smart and charming and funny, and Hadick not only nails these character elements, but her vocals perfectly express the feelings behind each of Jerusha’s letters. A really great performance. Probably the strongest work I’ve seen from her to date.
DC: I agree. We get to see Jerusha’s growth from an insecure young girl raised in a stifling orphanage to a grown, confident, educated woman – and Hadick nails the entire span.
JM: Conveying that gradual sense of growth over time is one of Hadick’s greatest accomplishments here.
DC: Benoit also had a tough job, given that he had to go from disinterested rich guy to jealous lover to husband material. I loved his acting, but I thought there were some “pitchiness” issues at the start of some of his songs – and especially some of the duets.
JM: I’ll confess I didn’t notice, if so. But for me, Benoit’s challenge is to be sympathetic, despite being in control, in many ways, of Jerusha’s life, and dictating things like how she spends her summers. Those were the moments when that power dynamic seemed most cruel, so Benoit had to navigate all that with a sense of the impassioned fear that’s driving Jervis. Plus, I found it interesting that, being a world-ranked ice dancer (cool, no?), Benoit has a physical presence that’s such an integral part of his performance. How he stands and gestures and moves – for a musical structured in letters, that was one real advantage to amping up the visual.
DC: Yes. His body language did play an important part of his character development. Man, he can stand up straight!
JM: And seeing his slow burn of frustration when reading about Jerusha’s other possible love interest – some really funny and genuine moments.
DC: But going back to your comment about Jervis’ cruelty, did you notice the vocal response from the audience when he stopped Jerusha from going where SHE wanted to go one summer? It’s interesting to see how we in the 21st century respond to things like that which were so common a hundred years ago.
JM: That audience response was again part of the time machine experience for me. The crowd, in that moment AND when Jerusha receives flowers from Jervis (“Awww!”), among others, felt reminiscent of one that might be watching a clear-cut morality tale – an entertainment that all but invited people to express their reactions audibly. In some historic contexts, that was simply part of being in an audience, having a shared experience while sitting in the dark. Unusual for these times, but also part of the charm of an old-fashioned, take-your-time love story.
DC: The responses were so polite, too. They weren’t loud or obnoxious. They were…well…sort of cute, I’d say.
JM: Right. Like they couldn’t quite hold it in.
DC: Like they just seeped out. I got a kick out of it.
JM: I think that’s probably because it was genuine. It wasn’t self-conscious. It wasn’t about drawing attention. It was just unadulterated emotional investment in the show. Which is what we all want when we go to the theater, really.
DC: Shared experiences are becoming less and less of a “thing,” unfortunately
JM: Which is why it means so much more when it happens. And I must say I LOVED Matt Tomich’s set for this show.
DC: The wallpaper in Jervis’ office certainly defined his financial status, didn’t it?
JM: And Eileen Obradovich’s props! A manual typewriter Jervis could actually bang on; the furniture that looked era-appropriate but didn’t take up too much stage space; and that office, at the angled center of the stage – it nicely sets apart Jervis’ sphere from Jerusha’s while being really economical.
DC: Norma Polk’s costumes are also effective. Jerusha starts out at the orphanage wearing what I’d call a fairly non-descript dress, and as she moves through time, her clothing becomes more and more pretty, more upscale, more adult, more successful.
JM: Yes, early on, Hadick literally strips off the gingham she’s worn all her life at the orphanage to reveal the skirt, blouse, and tie of a student at a women’s college. And later, she evolves even further, visually cuing us in to the changes happening inside her. Benoit, meanwhile, wears clothing appropriate to his class and economic status – but even the angle of his top hat indicates where his head is at. So to speak. (Rim shot!)
DC: He looks like he stepped off a Monopoly game card, didn’t he?
JM: Yes. And Tomich’s lighting and sound helped transport us to this long-ago time as well. Before the show started, DeBruyne noted that The Dio had a new speaker system that separated the vocals out from the music, so that the audience could hear each word more clearly, and boy, the different it made is just fantastic.
DC: It really is. I had no trouble hearing Hadick and Benoit whatsoever. That was a great investment! But we can’t leave out the three-piece band. They were flawless. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this was a show in which all of the technical elements truly came together to create an amazing piece of work.
JM: Everything about this musical is so economical: two actors, three musicians, a relatively simple set – it’s really something.
DC: It’s very well thought out and executed. Simplicity at its finest.
JM: Simplicity’s deceptively hard, of course, but when a company pulls it off, it’s really, really satisfying.
DC: Very much so.
JM: The Dio’s a little off the beaten path for me, but “Daddy Long Legs” has pretty much convinced me that I should try to make the trip more often.
DC: I agree. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been there, and it made me realize I need to get there more often. And as an added bonus, it’s a nice drive there!
JM: We can carpool! “Critics in Cars Getting Coffee.”