Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Review: Love Comes as a Surprise in DADDY LONG LEGS

Ashley Ruth Jones and Dino Nicandros. Photos by Tracey Roman

It can be a wonderful adventure to watch two people falling in love, particularly when they themselves don’t realize it’s happening. When the adventure takes place on stage – as in John Caird and Paul Gordon’s musical two-hander Daddy Long Legs – the audience has an advantage because they get to see the relationship develop from both points of view. The misunderstandings are more poignant, the coincidences even more delightful. By the time it becomes apparent to the couple in question, we’ve already fallen in love with them and are cheering them on to their eventual conclusion. Add music and the whole emotional journey becomes a romantic dream come true no fairy tale could tell better.

That’s the story of Jerusha Abbott and Jervis Pendleton, the two charming characters in Daddy Long Legs, who easily succeed in working their way into our hearts by the time they arrive at their happy ending. It’s a return to Southern California for the musical, which debuted at the Rubicon Theatre in 2009 as part of its rolling premiere. It then played venues like La Mirada Theatre, The Broad Stage, and Laguna Playhouse (I saw them all) before taking flight to London, New York, and beyond.

Caird’s adaptation of Jean Webster’s novel is an intimate and delicately balanced conversation for two, carried out in letters. She is an 18-year-old orphan with dreams of becoming a writer. He is a trustee of the orphanage who has seen promise in her writing and has decided to send her to college. His terms: they will never meet, she must write him monthly, and he will not write her back.

It’s worked perfectly well for the boys he has previously helped to educate but he finds that Jerusha has a curious effect on him. As she begins to discover a whole world she never imagined, her thoughtful, inquisitive, and often humorous observations break through his self-imposed isolation and reconnect him with the world.

What so impressed me about the musical in the past is how effortlessly it communicated the joy and pain of life by setting up two completely isolated realities - his and hers - and eventually merging the two into one. Their letters are the threads that tie them together with a singular intimacy that is only available because they move in parallel, not intersecting, worlds (until specific plot points deem it necessary).

International City Theatre’s production, directed by Mary Jo DuPrey, takes a different approach. DuPrey sets up the two worlds and then breaches their integrity by having the characters walk into each other’s space. Jervis (Dino Nicandros) watches Jerusha (Ashley Ruth Jones) for long sections of the musical, at times only inches away from her while she’s singing. She dances around him and wanders into his library at will. In one of the most invasive and puzzling moments, she drops a book on his desk for no apparent reason while he is sitting there.

The director’s desire to make the staging theatrically interesting has instead given us actors who are performing for the audience rather than speaking to each other, or to themselves, in the stream of consciousness narrative style Caird has written. It imposes an artificial quality on the piece, particularly since the characters are also not reading or writing letters at all. That in itself is confusing because it is difficult, especially in the beginning, to know whether they are speaking their own thoughts or reading the other person’s.

Nicandros is charming and has a lovely voice but encounters some difficulty with his high notes. Jones gives Jerusha an awkwardness that is endearing in its own sweet way yet it still feels like she is performing rather than carrying on a private conversation. Her most effective moments come when she keeps it simple. Gordon’s articulate and expressive score is full of soaring melodies and graceful lyrics that do much of the actors’ work for them, if they will trust what is written. Musical director Bill Wolfe’s onstage chamber trio (consisting of piano, guitar and cello) creates an elegant ambiance.

Despite its heavy-handed direction, there is much to love in this appealing romance of minds and hearts. If you are coming to the musical for the first time, doubtless you will be swept away as I was originally by its inherent charm.

Feb 21 - March 11, 2018
International City Theatre
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

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