By Lynn Venhaus
For the News-Democrat
The sentimental allure of letter-writing is front and center in the enchanting musical "Daddy Long Legs," a world premiere now playing at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until Nov. 4.
Forget the Fred Astaire movie. This two-person musical is more intimate, with melodic solos and a captivating love story, all told without dance or big production numbers.
Based on Jean Webster's 1912 enduring novel, "Daddy Long Legs" was the foundation for other movies and plays over the years, but this musical is a new work from Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (book) that was developed in 2007. Caird, who directed the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Les Miserables," also directed this production. Gordon composed "Jane Eyre" and "Emma."
At 18, smart orphan Jerusha Abbott wants more out of life. An anonymous benefactor arranges for her to attend college, and just requires a letter a month to not only hear about her progress but also allow her writing practice, as that is her chosen profession. Through these letters, which are funny and touching, they develop a close relationship. Early on, she dubbed him "Daddy Long Legs," for she saw his profile the day he stopped by the orphanage.
The years covered are from 1908 to 1912, when mainly the privileged sought higher education. Jerusha is well aware of her social standing, but blossoms because of her curious intellect and lively disposition. She learns of social issues (suffrage) and explores other places, describing her coming-of-age in lovely prose.
Her enthusiasm for the opportunities presented is infectious, and Ephie Aardema is just delightful in the role of an earnest young woman finding her way in the world. She is feisty, sweet, compassionate and resilient. Because she was abandoned as a baby, Jerusha has an undercurrent of sadness about her sometimes, but never self-pity. She is unapologetic when she speaks her mind, and desperately wants to succeed as a writer.
Aardema commands the stage with her winning presence, showcasing a nightingale's lilt, and strong-voiced Kevin Earley (Jervis Pendleton) harmonizes beautifully with her. As the character is written, he spends much time in his study, back to the audience. Their burgeoning romance is quaint, and while sounding far-fetched, it's genuinely believable. You immediately like her, and you want him to cherish her.
"Daddy Long Legs" connects emotionally from the moment a spunky Jerusha sings her story in "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home." While some of the music numbers seem repetitive, they are never delivered without conviction.
"The Man I'll Never Be," "Humble Pie" and "Charity" are powerful statements from Jervis, while "I Have Torn You From My Heart" "I Couldn't Know Someone Less" and "The Secret of Happiness" are poignant renditions from Jerusha. They deliver splendid duets, especially: "Things I Didn't Know," "Graduation Day" and "All This Time."
The capable pair of pros draws you in to this old-fashioned love story with much warmth, laughter and, for this softie, a few tears of joy.
When: through Nov. 4
Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road Webster Groves, Mo.
Information: For tickets, times and dates, go to www.repstl.org