There’s a full-tilt, nail-down-the-furniture charm offensive going on at the Cleveland Play House, and woe betide anyone who dares say no. Daddy Long Legs, a recent musical adaptation of a popular century-old play (not to mention a renowned Fred Astaire film), is so darn winning it makes your molars throb.
Sure, the music is repetitive, the characters are often just two-ply and it all goes on about 40 minutes too long. But Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (who wrote the book and directs this two-hander) simply will not take no for an answer.
Based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster and set at that time, the story is as simple as a silent film script. An orphan girl, Jerusha, is befriended by what she believes is a tall, aged, anonymous benefactor (she glimpsed him once from afar) who puts her through college. He only requests that, in return, she send him letters detailing her life.
But the academic sugar daddy, named Jervis, turns out to be a wealthy, cosmopolitan young man who eventually visits the college and meets up with Jerusha without revealing who he is. After that, she continues to send letters to her benefactor, sharing personal thoughts about this young man she met, without realizing they are the same person.
At this point, you can hear the anguished screams of all the young women who have had their secret diaries and love letters read by others. But this play saves that confrontation for the end.
Meanwhile, the play meanders from the college to Jerusha’s summer farm retreat and then off to the big city. Along the way, there is very little conflict, hardly any eye contact between the two actors on stage, and many treacly references to meadows ‘n’ frogs ‘n’ the moon rising over yonder. It feels sort of like a musical version of The Waltons—without John-boy’s edgy, hell-for-leather rebellious streak.
There are couple dozen sweetly descriptive songs that are mostly taken from Jerusha’s letters, sung by both characters, that sound vaguely similar in pace and tone. While pleasant to the ear and often sporting some witty lyrics, the tunes begin to drone as this almost 2½ hour show (with intermission) progresses.
In the role of Jerusha, Megan McGinnis is a treasure, as she employs her simple good looks and crinkly-cute expressions to fashion a young woman it’s easy to care about. She’s feisty, but still laboring within the tight social confines of the era. And McGinnis has such a bright, clear voice, she brings surprising depth to a number of fairly pedestrian songs.
As Jervis, Robert Adelman Hancock has some amusing moments, venting his frustration when Jerusha won’t dance to his tune. And he blends his crisp tenor voice nicely with McGinnis during their duets. But he is never able to give Jervis any interesting facets that would allow us to see why he is compelled to play this essentially awful trick on the young woman.
And that is why the conclusion of this soft-focus musical, a touring production with an eye on making it to Broadway or its environs, rings so hollow. Honest emotions on both sides are steamrolled by the happy ending everyone knows is coming. So you might as well give up and enjoy it. Resistance is futile.
Daddy Long Legs
Through Nov. 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000