Story: Jerusha Abbott proclaims herself to be ‘the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home.” She’s lived there all of her 18 years, and was named after the first name in the phone pages and a moniker on a tombstone in the local cemetery. Her life is about to change, though, in 1908, when she is informed by the stern orphanage administrator that one of the Home’s trustees has set aside money to send her to college so that this girl with a seeming knack for words can train to become a professional writer.
Jerusha is not to know who her benefactor is, although she knows that he is tall because she glimpsed his form as he left the orphanage. Thus, she calls him ‘Daddy Long Legs’ to herself. Conditions of her gift include the proviso that she write her benefactor monthly so that he can tell how she is progressing with her writing. He will always remain anonymous, going by the affected name ‘John Smith.’ As time goes by, though, both Jerusha and Jervis Pendleton, her secret (and handsome, single and youthful) benefactor, find themselves increasingly attracted to each other through those regular missives.
Highlights: The Rep is presenting the latest in what is called “a rolling world premiere” of this two-character musical, which debuted originally at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California in 2009. It’s a charming little period piece written by John Caird, who also directs The Rep’s production, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon. The two previously collaborated on the 2001 Broadway presentation ofJane Eyre, and Gordon also wrote the book for the musical Emma.
That affinity for classic works of literature is apparent in this adaptation of a 1912 novel written by Jean Webster that successfully transports its audience back to an age when a young woman had to fight for what few rights she had. Delightful performances by Ephie Aardema as Jerusha and Webster Conservatory alumnus Kevin Earley as Pendleton make for an enchanting evening.
Other Info: David Farley’s scenic design features Pendleton’s impressive library on the upper level of the two-tiered set, flanked by a pair of windows that can let in the sunshine or become part of the library background. The lower tier is cluttered with pieces of luggage that director Caird has the players maneuver into a bed, chairs or even a hill in the countryside outside Lock Willow, the Pendleton family retreat in New England where Jerusha spends her summers. Lighting designer Paul Toben suitably illustrates various scenes, and Farley adds the quaint early 20th century clothing worn by the two performers as well.
Music director Julia McBride leads a six-piece combo that warmly interprets Gordon’s wistful score, which is quite pleasant if also somewhat repetitive. That score does give Aardema and Earley plenty of opportunities to showcase their professional vocal skills as they take us through Jerusha’s four years of college, her relationships with fellow students Julia (Pendleton) and Sally and her subsequent entrance into the world of professional writing.
This is a gentle story, even if it delves into such lively topics a centur ago as socialism and women’s rights. As it doesn’t really deviate in style or tone throughout, it gets a bit wearisome in the second act. Still, the performances of its two skilled players are consistently fine and even surprisingly humorous.
McBride’s hidden musicians include bassist Bill Lenihan, cellist Marcia Mann, guitarist Steve Schenkel, percussionist Alan Schilling and violinist Adrian Walker in addition to McBride at the keyboard. Brad Haak serves as musical supervisor and collaborated with Gordon on the appealing orchestrations.
Daddy Long Legshas played to big audiences at its multiple stops on this “rolling world premiere.” There’s no reason to suspect any different result with the fine rendition mounted at The Rep.
Musical: Daddy Long Legs
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through November 4
Tickets: From $19.50; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Luis Escobar/PCPA Theaterfest