Jerusha Abbott is resigned to the rigid monotony of her life as the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home. But one day, a tall stranger arrives with intentions to send Jerusha to college on the condition that she write him each month, never expecting any correspondence in return. Grateful for his life-changing gift, Jerusha writes to her mysterious benefactor dutifully, dubbing him “Daddy Long Legs” in her letters.
Based on Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel of the same name, “Daddy Long Legs” originally made its way to the stage in 1914, with a script written by the author. The 1955 Fred Astaire film takes great liberties with Webster’s original story, but the 2015 off-Broadway musical bears a close resemblance to the original novel in letters. With book by John Caird and music and lyrics from Paul Gordon (the same writing team that brought Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” to Broadway in 2000), the musical weaves scenes of Jerusha composing her letters with scenes of the young, handsome Jervis Pendleton reading them alone in his study. The script does feel slow in some places, but overall, it’s remarkably entertaining without relying on spectacle.
The Swift Creek Mill production is lovely, marked by delicate harmonies and earnest performances. Director Steve Perigard has done wonderful work with this script. Maintaining the epistolary nature of the story means it’s not the most active plot, yet Perigard’s staging keeps things lively and engaging throughout.
Musical Director Paul Deiss leads an outstanding orchestra through some very beautiful, memorable songs. These are not big, splashy show tunes, but gentle, pleasant songs you’ll find yourself humming days later. The music and the performances of the orchestra and the actors are the most compelling parts of this production.
As Jerusha Abbott, Rachel Marrs’ energy is infectious, and she carries this story. Matt Polson is charming as Jervis Pendleton, and he manages to tap into the vulnerability of a character whose deception makes him a bit hard to like. Marrs and Polson are both strong vocalists, and their voices intertwine beautifully, their harmony a metaphor for the growing affection between their characters. They’ve got natural chemistry, too, which helps to maintain interest when the script drags. In the final scenes of the play, an ending that does feel a bit rushed—again, a script issue—these two actors still manage to sell the story.
Through Joe Doran’s clever lighting, projections announcing the shifting setting, deliberate use of props and Marrs’ and Polson’s expressive performances, we traverse the Northeast with these characters, visiting the orphanage, Pendleton’s study, Jerusha’s college dorm room, the school infirmary, Lock Willow Farm and the streets of Manhattan. Imagination is an important element of this play, and a key theme of the story, as well. Mercedes Schaum’s set design is attractive and period appropriate, and I loved the that we could see the orchestra, onstage behind a scrim.
Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes are fantastic examples of turn-of-the-century women’s dress, and it is through her changing wardrobe that we can witness Jerusha’s emerging maturity as a thinker, a writer and a woman. She goes from gingham pinafores to posh suits with ruffled blouses, her hairstyle shifting with each passing year, too. I only wish we could have seen her wear the elegant green ball gown with which she twirls before folding it up and placing it back into a chest.
This story can feel a bit dated, especially in terms of its gender politics. But there’s something subversive in the way Polson and Marrs portray these characters, and the script celebrates the cultivation of female intelligence, still a novel concept in 1912, and gender equality. Audiences on opening night cheered and hollered each time Jerusha mentioned the fight for women’s suffrage, demonstrating that these ideas still feel as relevant as ever. “Oh, I tell you Daddy,” Jerusha says in one of her letters, “when we women get our rights, you men will have to look alive to keep yours.”
“Daddy Long Legs” is almost a fairy tale, a rags-to-riches love story in which social mobility is attainable through hard work, imagination, a positive attitude — and a little help from a rich man who’s starting to fall in love with you. Jerusha is like a turn-of-the-century manic pixie dream orphan, the way she reignites Jervis’ lust for life with her quirky observations, her fresh new take on every book he’s ever read. It’s an interesting to story to revisit in 2020, and the Swift Creek Mill production is sweet, understated and, quite frankly, very well done.
Swift Creek Mill’s “Daddy Long Legs” runs until Feb. 22. Tickets cost $35-$40. swiftcreekmill.com.