If you remember one thing about Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s that the hit movie musical tells “a story about love.” The stage musical Daddy Long Legs, which is running through February 29 at the James J. Hill House in a site-specific area premiere, also purports to be about love.
But don’t be fooled like Jerusha Abbott, the main character (played by Maddie J. Olsem), who despite being heralded as a “New Woman” ends up ensnared by her (non-arachnid) male counterpart in this winsome but unintentionally sinister two-person show.
I bring up Moulin Rouge! for two reasons: I attended a special Valentine’s week screening at the Heights Theater just two days after taking in Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s non-traditional Daddy Long Legs; and the romantic similarities and contrasts help explain the problem in the latter.
In Luhrmann’s turn-of-the-century Bohemian Paris, a female prostitute falls in love with a penniless male writer believing that he is a wealthy duke. But the man is unaware of that deceit and quickly corrects it, leaving the woman to exercise her own free will — and she chooses him anyway.
A few years later in New England, where Daddy Long Legs takes place, another deceit takes hold: Jerusha, an orphan girl with no prospects, catches the eye of Jervis Pendleton (played by Chris Paulson), a wealthy young patron who decides to fund her college education. But she believes her benefactor to be a withering old geezer, and Jervis doesn’t correct her until the very end of the musical, and that prolonged deceit robs Jerusha of her free will, forcing her into his arms.
Of course, that’s not how the writers of the musical (the book is by John Caird, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon) or the 1912 book that inspired it (written by Jean Webster) see the state of affairs. It might also not be how you see it if, like the elderly women who sat in front of me, you have fond memories of Webster’s novel. I have no such history with the property, which makes both the happy ending and some of the specific artistic choices that got us there all the more perplexing.
The show is sung mostly through letters that Jervis requires Jerusha to write him during college in return for footing the bill, though he says he will never respond and that she will only ever know him as “Mr. Smith.” Instead of calling him that, she chooses the “pet name” Daddy Long Legs, as she saw his long-limbed shadow when he left the orphanage. Yes, that means one of the most common phrases in this musical is “Dear Daddy…” (and people say musicals aren’t sexy!).
First, the epistolary construction, while an admirable exercise that makes for interesting viewing for a fan of musicals, does get monotonous. As for the Jerusha-Jervis relationship, Gordon’s lyrics immediately show the girl’s attachment to the man (she calls him “family,” “friend,” “guiding hand,” “angel”) and Caird’s book has her repeating that her only other close relation is a woman from the orphanage, who she detests. So we have childish dependence established; and after Jervis falls in love with her through letters, and looks, he uses his status as an uncle of her classmate, the benefactor who controls her finances, and someone who knows the most intimate details of her life to guide her into his web of manipulated love.
It’s all the more unfortunate because Gordon, for much of the musical, shines in his music and lyrics. Even knowing Jervis’s exploitation of Jerusha, I find myself listening to certain songs on the Off-Broadway cast recording, particularly “Like Other Girls,” “The Secret of Happiness,” and “Charity” — though that last one may come down to the casting of Paul Alexander Nolan. But small lyrical missteps (pronouncing “Hammerstein” with “-een” instead of “-ine”) and musical oddities (the minor steps in “I’m a Beast (Reprise),” which seem to show Gordon’s recognition of the sinister Jervis) mirror the problems with the story.
Nonetheless, I still urge you to see this musical before it closes. As a two-person show, Olsem and Paulson truly are pulling off a commendable theatrical feat, and the setting in the foyer of the Summit Avenue mansion is a stroke of genius. Olsem convinces us, from mere feet away, of the intellectual and emotional journey of Jerusha, and her voice doesn’t show any signs of exhaustion by the end of the night. Paulson seems to lose a bit of his character in the quick, and quick-witted, turns of phrase Gordon weaves for Jervis, but when he needs to belt, he’s in his natural habitat. And don’t worry if you’re on the other side of the room, Sound Designer Abe Gabor has them miked so the historic, non-acoustic rooms don’t swallow the vocals.
The faults of Daddy Long Legs are not the faults of Minneapolis Musical Theatre, and I for one thank them for staging a show I may otherwise have never seen. But you have to wonder: Bartlett Sher’s ever-so-slightly reimagined My Fair Lady — which is coming to Minneapolis at the beginning of March — has Eliza walk out at the end, so why not Jerusha?
Daddy Long Legs
James J. Hill House
240 Summit Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102
Final performance: Feb. 29
Buy tickets here
Ticket deals $8 off for students, seniors 65+, and Minnesota Historical Society Members
Cast Maddie J. Olsem and
Chris Paulson, with understudies Sarah DeYong and Andrew Newman
Creative Amanda Weis (Director), Jean Orbison Van Heel (Music Director), Miranda Shunkwiler (Stage Manager), Grace Barnstead (Lighting Designer), Abe Gabor (Sound Designer), and Sara Kessler (Prop Designer)