Music & Lyrics by Paul Gordon; Book by John Caird
Based on the Book by Jean Webster
Directed by John Caird; Musical Director: Corinne Aquilina
Florida Studio Theatre's Gompertz
Coconut & Palm Aves., Sarasota,941-366-9000
February 7 to April 5, 2014

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Theaters must be starved for musicals that don't demand a large cast, full orchestra, spectacular costumes, and more than one change of set. This may explain why a mediocre, melodramatic chamber musical like Daddy Long Legs makes the rounds of fine regional theaters and even England.  Or maybe a story of a poor orphan who gets a college education from an unknown rich benefactor leading to an epistolary connection and a predictable romantic one is a surefire attraction. After all, it's gone from a novel through a number of stage and screen versions, none an absolute flop. The one at FST even boasts director and book writer who's worked with RSC, London's National Theatre, a score of major opera companies.

And Sarasota has enough elderly who like old-fashioned and sweet stuff as well as recall fondly the sourcebook by Jean Webster. So why did I find the newest musical so boring?

From the start I wondered why young Jerusha Abbott, whose correspondence with benefactor Jervis Pendleton constitutes the play, talks at first and sometimes between letters to us (the audience).  Or is she given to talking out loud and singing to herself, the air, some figment of her imagination? Why does she read aloud her donor's requirements (he stays anonymous, she takes her education on his terms and makes progress  to be reported monthly), since she's already agreed to and he's already made them? Why is her first year so detailed but  so little reported about school and summers until her final year of college? What's the reason for Jervis' philanthropy, for talking to us or himself, for repeating aloud parts of letters she's already recited? How about those times when they both sing together though apart?

The best part of the book is Jerusha's intellectual and social growth; of the production, sweet Penny McNamee's sustained  enthusiasm and pursuit of Jerusha's goal of being a writer.  (It does seem a bit surprising that right out of college she could earn a handsome sum on a first story.) Though she sometimes sings too softly, McNamee transitions easily from saying to singing and is agile physically. She needs to be since what passes for scenery in her part of the stage is a series of trunks, one of which she has to use as a desk as she sits on the floor. They may be a metaphor for her journey to maturity and independence, though the metaphor is broken when she lines up two trunks for a bed. A large, raised part of the stage is devoted to Jervis' desk in a polished dark wood corner of his book-lined library. Not a well developed character, he comes close to being creepy as he takes advantage of Jerusha's revelations to her Daddy Long Legs to find out more of them, put his real self forth in disguise as a suitor, and cut her off from summer places where she'd meet or be with other young men. As a sort of paper person, he sits most of his time with his back to her and the audience reading her letters. (He really should read more of his history books because he refers to Michelangelo as medieval.) Kevin Earley does what he can to  have Jervis seem likeable and maybe pass off stiffness as shyness. His voice, though, is sure, confident. That's no mean feat since the music is monotonous and lyrics forgettable, with no big number or striking phrase. I didn't sense that music was needed most of the time, other than as wake-ups. Four musicians were cleverly hidden backstage, I guess so as not to show the keyboard that's not of the period.

Credit goes to David Farley for appropriate costumes, especially those that come unwrinkled out of his scenic trunks. I thought it odd that Jerusha's graduation gown had no hood and mortar board no tassel. And I wasn't sure why books lined the entire proscenium at the end and how Jerusha would get them, if they were her texts, into her postgrad home. (She said earlier she was going to keep them as the contents of her education.) Publicity for this show noted that the musical is extremely popular in Japan. The production made me recall the old age about East is east and West is west and.... to apply to my experience at FST.

Time: 2 hrs, 15 mins.  Production Stage Manager: Kelli Karen.


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