When two highly engaging performers are saddled with less than dynamic material, you can at least revel in their onstage chemistry and delightful voices. Even the design work attempts to elevate the piece with period detail and artistic flourishes. But a nice set is not enough to inject much-needed oomph into a sung-through romance that is short on tension and long on repetition.
This was the overwhelming feeling that faced me when I exited Monumental Theatre Company’s latest production, the two character musical, Daddy Long Legs, based on an epistolary novel from 1912 that has been adapted several times, most notably by a 1955 film musical starring Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire – which is not the basis for this musical. Closer to the original novel, this Daddy Long Legs was co-created more than a decade ago by John Caird and Paul Gordon. The show has be-bopped around the globe to major cities and regional theatres.
If Caron and Astaire as co-stars are not a big enough hint for you, the story concerns Jerusha Abbott, a bright young lady living in an orphang, whose further education is aided by an anonymous benefactor who happens to be an older gentleman of means. One requirement of the sponsorship is that Jerusha write “Mr. Smith” monthly letters outlining her progress. This one-sided correspondence formed the basis of the 1912 novel and this nearly sung-through musical. Think Les Miserables without the revolutionary fervor, dramatic tension or memorable tunes.
The 400-pound gorilla in the room could also be a musical set at the turn of the last century in which the lead female refers to her mysterious and slightly older benefactor as “daddy,” a fact which drums up other connotations today that you have likely already imagined. For my own point of view, all those thoughts of sugar daddies and pouty young gold diggers were quickly put away. The time period was portrayed so clearly and the performers embodied the relative innocence of the characters and their mostly chaste situation, the daddy references were par for the course.
Daddy Long Legs
closes March 30, 2019
Details and tickets
I cheered the charming performances of Caroline Wolfson and Kurt Boehm while wishing they were performing material that matched their skill level. As the “oldest orphan at the John Grier Home,” Wolfson has an effortless stage presence and embodies the classic ingenue with a soaring, clear voice surrounded by innocence and intelligence. All those qualities were able to shine through as Jerusha matures into an independent, intelligent young lady of the early 1900s. Among the score, “I Have Torn You From My Heart” stood out to me as a particularly strong performance.
Boehm as Jervis, dubbed “Daddy Long Legs” in the letters, works mightily to bring interest to his primarily reactive material. The essence of Jervis as a character is something like, “This is an increasingly bewitching young lady and I want to open myself up to her but I am too scared to open up.” But Boehm is stuck with the predominantly lackluster score to express Jervis’ growing affection and and conflicting reticence. The actor uses his considerable talent – strong focus, a pleasant baritone – to connect with the audience and his co-star. I commend him for a fine performance.
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Director Michael Windsor and his design team keep the two-hander moving with a swirl of color and imaginative staging. I was immediately struck by the gorgeous scenery, designed by Jessica Cancino. A book-lined study and a homey dorm room are suggested with an open area between, all tied together with stylized book pages that cascade down to form part of the background and walkway. As nicely done as the scenery and lighting are, it was the detail in the costumes that was to die for, from the imagination of Kristen P. Ahern. If the two actors had walked into a frame of “Downton Abbey” they would have fit right in. Jerusha’s wardrobe included high-button shoes and everything from simple frocks to elegant ensembles for when she emerges as a university graduate and turned out young lady. With handsome, tailored looks, the costumes for Jervis gave the impression of the style and repressed nature of the character. “Clothes make the man or woman”was never truer here.
I wish the costumes, scenery, and excellent performances were enough – and these aspects are all first class – but I just can’t say they are. Caird and Gordon’s material just does not do enough to infuse this two-person romance with the power to compel repeated viewings or listening. (Full disclosure: I tried to listen to the available cast recording on Amazon Prime but found I could not get through the entire album.)
So way to go, Windsor, Wolfson, Boehm, et al – Monumental Theatre Company has once again stepped up to the plate with style and talent to spare. But the game itself is a rain out.
Daddy Long Legs . Book by John Caird . Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon . Directed by Michael Windsor . Music Directed by Marika Countouris . Featuring: and Caroline Wolfson and Curt Boehm . Scenic Design: Jessica Cancino . Costume Design: Kristen P. Ahern . Lighting Design: Rob Siler . Sound Design: Michael D’Agostino . Production Manager: Sarah Frances Hope Williams . Produced by Monumental Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.