Book By John Caird, Music & Lyrics by Paul Gordon
St James Theatre, London SW1, until December 8, 2012
Based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel of the same name, Daddy Long Legs is the story of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan from the John Grier Home who is whisked away to college, funded by an anonymous benefactor. Jerusha dubs him ‘Daddy Long Legs’ after a glimpse of his tall, gangly shadow. The only proviso to her funding is that she write letters of her experiences to him. The intimacy which emanates from the correspondence forms the backbone of the tale.
With a successful US tour on its résumé, it’s a real treat that Daddy Long Legs premières in London with its original American duo of Megan McGinnis as Jerusha and Robert Adelman Hancock as her benefactor. Their on-stage chemistry is flawless, and in an epistolary musical where the interaction between the two is limited, that chemistry is invaluable. It’s a connection that brings the correspondence to life, allowing the characters’ relationship to blossom despite the narrative restrictions.
That connection is also accentuated through musical harmony. Whether individually or in unison, Hancock and McGinnis have pitch perfect voices, and their vocal abilities ensure the soundtrack by itself is well worth a listen. The opening tunes, The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home and Who Is This Man?, set the tone for the musical’s high quality. It isn’t just about sounding the part, the music must also be a vessel for the story, and the lyrics aren’t constrained at all by the musical arrangements. That synergy between the music and its lyrics allows the performers to tease out every meaning and emotion from the words. After receiving a Tony Award for Best Original Score for Jane Eyre on Broadway, Paul Gordon has certainly worked his magic once again with Daddy Long Legs.
Perhaps the only drawback is that the ingredients for the plot are quite familiar; there isn’t much here which you won’t have seen or read before in other romantic stories. But what impresses is the way in which the constituent parts are threaded together to produce a highly polished and sensitive performance. The set is quaint, packing cases are used to good effect to develop scenes throughout, and both McGinnis and Hancock are at the top of their games, creating a fantastic feel-good factor.
Daddy Long Legs has graced various mediums in its 100 years since the novel’s first publication; several big screen productions, including the 1955 Fred Astaire picture, and even a Japanese animé series. Whilst the musical form may not receive a huge amount of notoriety, it feels like the most faithful and sensitive to Webster’s original story, and for that it deserves a great deal of praise. The St James Theatre has brought a marvellous production to London, and if its opening season continues in this vein, it’s easy to see a bright future for this new Central London theater.