note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
There’s something special about Megan McGinnis. This enchanting star of John Ciard’s two-person musical, “Daddy Long Legs,” has an inner glow that permeates the stage, and she’s delightful to watch at Merrimack Repertory Theater.
McGinnis, who has starred on Broadway as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” and Eponine in “Les Miserables,” and in other shows, has also graced stages in major roles with national touring companies, on TV, recordings, and in movies. She originated the role of grown-up orphan Jerusha Abbott in “Daddy Long Legs,” which premiered in Ventura, Calif. in 2009. Handsome, tall co-star, Robert Adelman Hancock, who originated the role of Jerusha’s benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, adds harmony, comedy and dash, under Ciard’s deft direction at Merrimack.
Although Jean Webster’s novel was written in 1912 and is set in 1908-1912, throughout the decades, it has been resurrected and remodeled as a play, a musical, and several movies, nationally and internationally. Older theatergoers probably remember the charming 1952 movie musical starring dancing legend Fred Astaire and talented French co-star, Leslie Caron.
In Ciard’s production, he enlisted composer-lyricist Paul Gordon, who won three Ovation Awards for his efforts. Although Gordon’s melodies sound repetitive at times, his lyrics are sweetly old-fashioned and clever. Off-stage, Musical Director Laura Bergquist on keyboard skillfully leads five musicians, whose accompaniment nicely balances McGinnis and Hancock’s harmonies and solos.
In 1908, Jervis visited the orphanage as a trustee and pored over Jerusha’s file. Without seeing her, the orphanage’s eldest resident, he determined she had potential as a writer and decided to fund her education, providing she write him monthly letters of her progress. He insisted on anonymity, and her understanding that he’d never write back. After reading her letters, though, he becomes enchanted by her sincerity and creativity. Because Jerusha was abandoned at birth, without identification, orphanage administrators chose her first name from a gravestone and her last name from the telephone book, she writes. Lonely and isolated her freshman year, Jerusha says she prefers to address her benefactor more familiarly, as Daddy Long Legs.
When Jerusha later meets her pretentious classmate Julia Pendleton’s young uncle, Jervis, who’s estranged from the rest of the family and considered a “socialist,” Jerusha is unaware he’s Daddy Long Legs. He becomes further charmed by her personality and growing independence, and falls in love with her.
Her dream is to vote someday (she admires Suffragists), become published, use her earnings to pay back her benefactor and open her own orphanage. After Jerusha writes that she’s frustrated and dejected because Daddy Long Legs didn’t attend her college graduation, Jervis relents, reveals his identity, and all ends happily.
Although scenes shift from the staid, New England John Grier orphanage, to Jervis Pendleton’s sumptuous home in Manhattan, Jerusha’s college dormitory room and her summer stays at Pendleton’s appointed Massachusetts Lock Willow farmhouse, David Farley’s two-tiered set remains constant. Lighting designer Paul Toben created subtle touches, such as illuminated, handwritten calendar dates that flash high above, on walls, symbolizing dates of Jerusha’s letters to Daddy Long Legs and subsequent time passage.
Surrounded by huge bookcases and trunks, McGinnis changes costumes on stage, (which Farley also designed), denoting her metamorphosis from institutionalized, teen-aged orphan into a gracious, appealing young woman and published author.
Theatergoers rewarded McInnis, Hancock and Co. with an enthusiastic, well-earned standing ovation.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two hour musical by director Tony and Olivier award-winning director-author John Ciard, based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, appearing at the Merrimack Repertory Theater (50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell), through March 4. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Feb. 25, March 3, at 4 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 26, at 2,7 p.m., March 4 at 2 p.m. only. Check for free related events. Tickets start at $24, discounts for seniors, students and groups. Call the Box Office at 978-654-4678 or visit merrimackrep.org.