Occasionally the combination is just right. Writers, composers and production teams unite to show what's really possible with the magic of theater. Such is the stuff that "Daddy Long Legs" is made of. This new musical weaves its magic right into our hearts and minds, and is definitely one of the best surprises of the theater season so far.
The lineage here has all the right stuff. Composer Paul Gordon, best known to TheatreWorks audiences for the recent hit "Emma," wrote the music and lyrics. John Caird, who co-directed and adapted "Les Miserables," among many noteworthy award-winning shows, wrote the adaptation, and also directed this world premiere production.
It was Caird's wife who recommended Jean Webster's 1912 novel "Daddy Long Legs" as the next project for the duo. The story chronicles the coming of age of orphan Jerusha Abbott (played by Megan McGinnis), who, after showing some early promise with her writing, is mysteriously financed for a full ride to college. Her benefactor chooses to remain anonymous and silent, but Jerusha can never be silent, writing lengthy, colorful letters each month to her "Daddy Long Legs," as she nicknames him. As she blossoms from a girl into an educated and accomplished young woman, she writes and writes, and her relationship with "Daddy" grows, even though it's a one-sided conversation.
Or is it? The conceit of the novel, in which we hear only from Jerusha through her letters, is altered in the musical to allow us to see and hear her benefactor and would-be suitor, Jervis Pendleton (Robert Adelman Hancock). Jerusha of course doesn't know that the attractive young man and her "Daddy" are one and the same, but we do, and that's part of the fun and the intrigue, seeing the relationship unfold by fits and starts, and wondering how it will turn out. If you've read the book, of course, you know.
The novel itself is witty, bright, philosophical by turns, and filled with sharp observations on life and society, especially on matters of disparate wealth and its effect on people. Caird has done a great job of keeping these delightful details alive, as well as illuminating the warm heart at the story's core. Gordon's lyrics also capture the bouncy and erudite language of budding author Jerusha in humorous rhyme. The two have shaped the engaging monologue of the novel into a wonderful dialogue between two appealing characters.
What brings the project to life, however, are the remarkable performances given by McGinnis and Hancock, the only performers on stage. The entire show rests on their shoulders, and they are both stunning in their roles, delivering the goods with ease and aplomb and enchanting modesty.
McGinnis has the voice of an angel, one that issues from her with apparent effortlessness. She's perfectly suited for this role: winsome, cute, feisty, intelligent and proud, as needed, as if she were born Jerusha. Her expressiveness, both in visage and in song, speaks volumes. She transitions from young girl to young woman quite naturally. And she amazed me with her ability to do absolutely anything while continuing to sing.
Hancock has the task of creating a character almost from whole cloth, since there is little in the book on which to base Pendleton. But Caird's and Gordon's work gives him an ample platform, and he takes it the rest of the way, making Pendleton a character utterly believable and equal in strength to Jerusha. His voice pleases in his solos, and rouses the house in "Charity," but also blends flawlessly in duets with McGinnis.
While the entire production team deserves kudos for the show as a whole, the set and costumes by David Farley earn special notice. The set provides an almost infinite variety of choices for configurations, allowing for visualizing of different spaces on a single set, while the costumes capture the period and occasion without distracting and without taking actors off the set.
In short, TheatreWorks hits it out of the park with this production — it's sweet, funny, touching, entrancing and superbly done.
What: "Daddy Long Legs," a new musical by John Caird and Paul Gordon, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.; and Sundays at 7 p.m.; through Feb. 14
Cost: Tickets are $34-$67
Info: Go to www.theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960