By Kay Kipling
Those of us of a certain age—particularly those of the female persuasion—may remember reading the book Daddy Long Legs as adolescents. The 1912 novel, written in the form of letters from a young woman to her mysterious benefactor (aka Daddy Long Legs), may not have had quite the sustained impact on young readers as Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, but it was popular enough to spawn several movie versions and, more recently, a musical stage version now playing at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre.
The book and the musical tell a simple story: Young orphan Jerusha Abbott (Penny McNamee) is aging out of the drab asylum where she has spent her life, and wondering what her future holds, when a trustee of the asylum surprises her (anonymously) with the gift of a college education. (She only glimpses his long-legged shadow as he departs; hence her nickname for him.) There are conditions attached: She must write him letters regularly updating her progress, she must never expect him to respond, and she must never ask who he really is.
Naturally, there is a love story in Daddy Long Legs, but beyond that there is the story of a young woman finding herself and some level of independence as well. In this musical, with songs by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird (who also directs here), the implied feminist messages of Webster’s original—that women should be equal citizens, with the right to vote and express themselves—are feelingly conveyed by McNamee, who matures convincingly from a slightly giddy teenager to a college graduate with a mind of her own, but a place in her heart for her Daddy.
Now, as to the Daddy; he is really not the old, graying, fatherly figure Jerusha believes him to be, but a much younger, wealthy man of good family named Jervis Pendleton (Kevin Earley), with something missing in his life—emotional contact—that he gradually finds through his long-distance relationship with Jerusha. Naturally, the time comes when he can’t restrict himself to merely reading her lively letters, but must meet her in person, albeit still not identifying himself to her as her donor.
As befits this somewhat old-fashioned story (although when one thinks about it, it’s a little like online dating), the staging at FST is simple, with a set by David Farley that includes a book-lined library for Jervis and a set of trunks for Jerusha to move about to serve various functions and to hold props. It’s a quiet piece, with no surprises or great drama, and Gordon’s tunes, while pleasing to listen to, may not last long in your memory once you leave the theater.
But when some musicals of the past few decades have tended to overblown spectacle, there’s a refreshing difference to Daddy Long Legs, aided by the engaging manner of the actors, who interact well with each other, and by the charm of the intimate, touching story.
Daddy Long Legs continues through April 5 at the Gompertz; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.