Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Daddy Long Legs

Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Daddy Long Legs. Photo by Jeanne Tanner

The Route to Musical Love
by John Herbert Cunningham

Daddy Long Legs has walked a great distance to get from page to stage making many transformations along the way.

It began its journey in 1912 as a novel by Jean Webster, daughter of a wealthy socialite family who, when she arrived in New York to attend Vassar College as a budding English major and future novelist, became exposed to the American orphanage system and became an advocate for reform. Its next incarnation was as a 1919 silent movie starring Mary Pickford whom many may remember as a Canadian actress. It first appeared as a musical in 1931, sticking close to the original, before Shirley Temple, in 1935, starred in a musical version which required significant changes. This revamping continued when, in 1955, a movie version starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron was created with music and lyrics by Johnny Mer, as an anime television series, (1990), and South Korea (2005).

Finally, through a joint effort by the Rubicon Theatre Company of Ventura, California, TheatreWorks of the Silicon Valley, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the original plot was restored before finally settling onto the mainstage of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC), the John Hirsch Theatre.

That may be one of the few disappointments of this musical which is an outstanding statement by a reviewer who professes to hate musicals.

The story begins with Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis), a waif in the American adoption system at the beginning of the last century, receiving a letter from an unknown benefactor offering her a chance at an education at a girls finishing school provided she adheres to a nine-point program which includes majoring in English and writing to the unknown benefactor at least monthly. Through her quaint and unassuming nature as well as the touching humour exhibited in her letter writing, she begins to win over the benefactor who had intended to remain unknown and unknowable. 

She had imagined him as an elder statesman positing at one time that he was 86 years old. After considering and discarding such names as Elderly Woman Hater, she dubs him Daddy Long Legs. She begins to desire meeting this elder gentleman unaware that she had but in the much younger guise of the gentleman's supposed relation, Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock).

That fact plays a much more significant role than might otherwise be expected. Jerusha, whose name was given to her when she entered the orphanage system by that same system with the first name being taken from a tombstone, is bunked with two other young women.

Susan, although wealthy, has not let that go to her head. She and Jerusha fast become friends. Susan has a brother, Jim, which provides the story's second turning point fuelling Jervis's interest in Jerusha.

The other is a societal snob with the last name of Pendleton, yes, the sister of Jerusha's benefactor whose family has a rich ancestry which they do not let anyone forget. Jerusha, in a letter to her benefactor, states that the family came to North America on the ark.

If the story reminds you of G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion, later made into a movie titled My Fair Lady, there are probably good reasons for that.

The Canadian John Caird wrote the book for Daddy Long Legs and directs this production.

The actors and the rest of the staff are all American which is disappointing particularly as, shortly before this production, RMTC's Warehouse Theatre produced The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood's feminist revision of Homer's Odyssey in which all the actors were Winnipeg-based females.

That may be one of the few disappointments of this musical which is an outstanding statement by a reviewer who professes to hate musicals. However, this is not your usual Broadway bombastic vocal pyrotechnics musical. No indeed. 

The vocals bring to mind Arnold Schoenberg's Sprechstimme technique which is a vocal technique that exists somewhere between spoken and sung word. The effectiveness of this is that it does not sacrifice the dramatic quality of the play in favour of entertainment which is something that Broadway musicals, case in point being Wicked, frequently do. Kudos to composer and lyricist Paul Gordon for this significant achievement.

The effectiveness of Daddy Long Legs depended almost as much on the production personnel as on the actors whose chemistry was exquisite.

I must disagree with CBC reviewer Josh Schmidt who found the set design by David Farley boring. This reviewer found the set to be perfect for its purpose. Simple in construction, it consisted of an angular vista whose focal point was a raised platform on which sat a writing desk and bookcases. This raised section was occupied by Jervis Pendleton. Two stairs down was a section occupied by Jerusha Abbott visually demonstrating her lowered status as an orphan dependant on a benefactor.

This set design provided a visual representation of the changing circumstances of the two characters with Jerusha slowly walking up one stair at a time and only reaching the summit at the end while Jervis walked down to pay his visits to Jerusha. Interestingly and revealing, there is a point towards the end where Jervis occupies the lower level while Jerusha the upper. 

This use of levels is an outstanding visual feast which reaches its apogee when Jervis drops to one knee to request Jerusha's hand in marriage and Jerusha eventually drops to both knees to accept.

Lighting designer Paul Toben also deserves recognition for a very effective use of lighting throughout the show although why one of Winnipeg's excellent lighting designers could not have been recruited is a mystery. Regional theatres like RMTC forget their originating purpose, which was to promote Canadian theatre, when things like this happen.

All in all, this was an excellent production which was enjoyed even by a self-professed hater of musicals.

To April 6


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