A.R. Gurney’s epistolary two-hander “Love Letters” has proved a hardy mainstay for strapped theaters, and the similarly epistolary “Daddy-Long-Legs” should enjoy a comparable shelf life. Librettist-helmer John Caird (“Les Miz”) has reclaimed Jean Webster’s 1912 bestseller for a wholesome tuner in tune with the times, bolstered by winsome melodies from Paul Gordon (“Jane Eyre”). Assessment of show’s full potential must await redress of a serious casting imbalance in the Rubicon Theater premiere, but the signs are positive.
This is the old chestnut — first enacted on film by Mary Pickford, that’s how old — about the spirited orphan Jerusha (Megan McGinnis), tapped by a mysterious benefactor (Robert Adelman Hancock) for an all-expense-paid college education, at the price of a monthly letter ruminating on her experiences.
The correspondence reveals her innermost secrets to the supposedly elderly Dutch uncle she calls Daddy-Long-Legs (nickname prompted by a sighting of his shadow), about whom her curiosity is boundless.
Vocally supple and free of ingenue affectation, McGinnis proves magical in this star-making role. After a shaky start — she’s too spunky too soon, while receiving her Cinderella news with strange equanimity — she bewitchingly conveys the rushes of young love: first with literature and learning, and then with that oddest of creatures, the male of the species.
McGinnis’ modesty and understated charm maintain freshness as she convincingly grows into wise adulthood.
Naturally, her long-distance Pygmalion — actually Jervis Pendleton, a 30ish, Henry Higgins-like Gotham socialite — falls in love with his increasingly willful Galatea. He can’t help but step into her life in person, echoing “Shop Around the Corner” as dates with “Jervis” are anatomized in letters to “Daddy” and discomfiture mounts.
Jervis needn’t be old (it was creepy when Fred Astaire pined for a 32-years-younger Leslie Caron in the 1955 Fox pic), but surely he must have an old soul. Progressive in outlook but misogynistic and socially backward, Jervis has to have a shirt Jerusha can gradually wring the starch and stuffing out of.
Hancock’s shirt is empty. Boasting a capable tenor and requisite long limbs, his Jervis is otherwise a stock goofy juvenile devoid of gravitas, with no hint of the repressed “Mr. Girl Hater” who must emerge from a shell. Later attempts at affronted dignity lead to mannered mugging out of bad Gilbert and Sullivan, becoming even less convincing as the story moves into more serious waters.
When one lead is as inauthentic as the other is real, one can only guess as to a balanced cast’s possibilities, especially given such charming material. Gordon’s flavorful music sits comfortably between the previous turn of the century and our own, notably in Jerusha’s ingenuous ballads “Like Other Girls” and “I Couldn’t Know Someone Less.”
There’s surprisingly little evocation of ragtime, but the spirited score is marred only by the syrupy cliches of the endlessly recycled “The Secret of Happiness,” and redundancy prompted by act two’s 12 reprises vs. five new songs. If Gordon hoped the revisited songs would mirror the characters’ journey through time, that’s not happening yet.
Caird’s libretto is light on humor — constant references to Daddy’s supposed decrepitude grow wearisome — and the decision to restrict virtually all the songs and dialogue to Jerusha’s letters means we can’t always tell whether Jervis is articulating his own feelings or hers. Also, once the deception is revealed, the tuner lets him off mighty easy for a cad who’s essentially been devouring a girl’s diary.
Still, Jerusha’s insights of a century ago remain keen and winning, and Caird refreshingly lets them speak and sing for themselves.
Caird works within his “Nicholas Nickleby” mode of reshaping the environment through shifted objects (here, trunks and suitcases), against an impressive library unit set and lived-in costumes by David Farley. Paul Toben’s light cues seemed inconsistent on press night, but moody tableaux suggested a unified look in keeping with the delicate material.