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Daddy Long Legs
Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon, Book by John Caird
Based on the Novel by Jean Webster
Directed by Maggie Ryan

March 29, 2019

 

Terry Barber, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s latest production is something of a surprise, at least to me. I wasn’t very familiar with the source material before seeing this show, and the premise seemed somewhat problematic (even creepy) to my 21st Century eyes at first glance. Still, John Caird and Paul Goron’s musical version of Daddy Long Legs has been critically acclaimed in its London, New York, and regional runs, and the casting looked good. Now, upon seeing it, I’m pleased to report that not only is the production a sheer delight–it’s in the best musical production I’ve ever seen from this company.

Looking at the plot of this show through a 21st Century lense, the plot seems at least a little suspect. A young and rich, but socially awkward benefactor chooses an orphan girl to support and send to college, and (spoiler!) it eventually evolves into a love story. There are so many potential problems with this setup just looking at it like that, but one of the most admirable things about this show is that it doesn’t ignore or gloss over the potential problems–it directly addresses them and has the characters challenge and confront them, from power imbalances to dishonesty and misrepresentation and more. Ultimately, though, it’s a story of a surprising relationship that grows from entirely different intentions. It also helps that the orphaned Jerusha Abbott (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) is already 18 when the story begins. As she explains in song, she’s “The Oldest Orphan” at the place where she grew up, the John Grier Home, feeling as if she is stuck there by her circumstances and by societal expectations. Jesper Pendleton (Terry Barber) is a man from a prestigious family who has come into wealth at young age, and is a trustee for the orphanage. He’s financed other orphans’ college educations before as an act of charity, but only with boys until Jerusha, who has impressed him with an essay she has written. Initially, it’s all anonymous and mysterious, with Jerusha expected to write letters to the pseudonymous “Mr. John Smith” with no expectation of receiving a reply. She nicknames her benefactor “Daddy Long Legs” based on catching a glimpse of his tall figure walking away, and imagines him as an old man. As her letters grow more descriptive and animated, reflecting her strong and determined personality, Jesper is increasingly impressed, to the point where he feels compelled to meet her in person, and the story–and the relationship–grow more complex, and complicated, from there. I won’t give away too much, because that would spoil the fun of this surprising, richly characterized, and musically memorable character study that’s at times funny, thought-provoking, emotionally intense, thoughtful, and heartwarming. It’s well structured, and there’s never a dull moment.

The is a two-character show, and both performers are ideally cast in their roles. Jerusha carries most of the weight of the show. She appears to be the focus character for much of the story, and Theby-Quinn is truly impressive in the role, showing off her great acting range from delightfully snarky comic moments to poignant drama, as well as excellent vocals. Barber, as the initially more mysterious Jervis, does an excellent job of showing the character’s emotional growth, starting out as rather stuffy and remote, to displaying a real depth and vulnerability that reveals itself gradually as the story unfolds. He also has a glorious voice, particularly on his character’s personal epiphany moment with the song “Charity” in the second act. The chemistry between the performers is delightful, as well, also starting out believably awkward but then growing as the characters interact more. It’s a believable progression, and their voices blend together impressively, as well.

The staging is impressive, as well, with a meticulously detailed period set and striking lighting by Rob Lippert, and marvelously detailed costumes by Julian King. Jerusha’s outfits are particularly impressive, as she goes through various costume changes onstage for a variety of authentic early 1900’s looks. The only minor distraction is Barber’s somewhat obvious wig, but all other aspects of this production are stunning. There’s also excellent work from the small band led by music director Scott Schoonover.

This is a real must-see of a show. It’s a touching, tuneful, and impeccably staged production with two top-notch leading performances and a vividly realized portrayal of its time and place. It’s not only the best musical I’ve seen from Insight. It’s up there with 2014’s stunning Death of Salesman as one of their two best overall shows I’ve been able to attend there. Daddy Long Legs is truly marvelous production.

Terry Barber, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Daddy Long Legs at the Marcelle Theatre until April 14, 2019

 

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