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Theatre Review (Ventura, CA): Daddy Long Legs at the Rubicon Theatre

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In 1912, American writer Jean Webster wrote Daddy Long Legs, which was destined to become a classic children’s story although it was originally written with young women in mind. The heroine, Jerusha (later Judy) Abbott, is an orphan brought up in the John Grier Home, an orphanage where she depends on charity to get by. She eventually becomes a scouring maid there.

A wealthy benefactor asks the matron to pick out a worthy subject to be sent to college as a writer, with him paying all the expenses. The only caveat is that she must write him a monthly letter, because he believes letter-writing is essential in the training of a young writer. She, however, must never expect him to write. Eventually they meet by chance – and fall in love.

The gentleman’s identity must be sorted out, because she only knows him as John Smith, or, as she dubs him from a brief glimpse of his shadow, “Daddy Long Legs.” He meets her as the rich relative of a classmate. His real name is Jarvis Pendleton and that’s the person she – not knowing he is John Smith or “Daddy Long Legs” – falls in love with. All this is eventually figured out and they agree to marry.

This Pygmalion-like tale has been translated into many languages and made into several movies, most notably Daddy Long Legs starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. That musical movie changed many details, upped her age to avoid a very tricky age issue, and had the whole orphan sponsorship decided on by his staff, unbeknownst to him. These changes allowed the movie to sidestep several sticky issues and permit it to become a musical comedy.

A new attempt at musicalizing this story is being made at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. The writer/director is the estimable John Caird of Nicholas Nickleby fame, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, composer of Broadway’s Jane Eyre. They have put together a very respectable production with great sets and costumes by David Farley and musical direction by Laura Bergquist. Robert Adelman Hancock plays the underwritten Jervis, and the incredibly talented Megan McGinnis plays Jerusha.

There are two major problems. The book never tells us why or how Jerusha is chosen, so we never get fully involved in this important plot point. We don’t get to understand the workings of Jervis’ choice. The second problem is the music. I liked each song individually, but they all sound alike and are ultimately undistinguished. This is all a shame when it is obvious that so much love has gone into this project, and the performers are both captivating.

Daddy Long Legs opened at the Rubicon Theatre on October 17th and will play through November 8th.

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