Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set over a four-year period in the early 1900s, the story follows the plight of Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan at the John Grier Home, and the mysterious benefactor who offers her a fully paid opportunity to go to college. The only thing Jerusha knows about this mystery man is that he is tall, having seen his elongated shadow when he was at the orphanage, so she calls him "Daddy Long Legs," and the only requirement of the arrangement is that Jerusha must send her anonymous philanthropist monthly letters to keep him abreast of her education and experiences. However, as part of the arrangement she also knows that he will never write back. Jervis Pendleton is a member of the board of directors of the orphanage and the anonymous donor who, while he wished to remain anonymous and uninvolved in Jerusha's life, finds he's taken on more than he thought once he realizes he's drawn to Jerusha through her expressive letters.
Based on the 1912 novel of the same name by Jean Webster, and with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird, the musical entirely revolves around the monthly letters Jerusha is required to write as well as a few meetings she has with Jervis, the uncle of one of her classmates, who we know is the real Daddy Long Legs, though Jerusha does not. The music is lush, romantic and varied, with just enough recurring themes and musical hooks that will stick with you. Caird's book does a good job in allowing us to learn about the characters through the use of the emotionally rich letters and humorous encounters. The only drawback is that the characters are ones you've most likely seen before, and the plot basically goes where you'd expect it to go. However, while the ending is predictable it is also very sweet and touching.
As Jerusha, Heidi Liz Johnson beautifully projects the appropriate shades of naiveté one would expect from a sheltered orphan but also exhibits the strength, inquisitiveness and determination of a budding feminist. Johnson does a superb job in portraying the range of emotions of this headstrong young woman as she comes of age and finds her voice and place in the world. Jervis is charmed by Jerusha's letters, but he is unsure, due to the deceitfulness of his actions, of how to tell her who he really is. Kade Bailey does a lovely job depicting this conflicted man who tries to tell Jerusha the truth but chickens out, as he has a hard time expressing his feelings. We also see the pain and confusion in Jervis from Bailey's emotive facial expressions and expressive body language, allowing us to understand that, while Jervis may be an uncomplicated man, he's turned their relationship into a most complicated one simply because he is unable to tell Jerusha the truth. Both Johnson and Bailey create believable and realistic characters, and they have excellent singing voices that bring out the humor, emotion and charm in all of their songs.
Director Tim Dietlein does an exceptional job staging the show in Hale's in-the-round venue and derives warm and natural portrayals from his cast. Since Jerusha and Jervis communicate almost completely through letters and only meet a few times, <>Daddy Long Legs is also a perfect musical to present in a socially distanced staging. Brian Daily's set design uses several trunks, a large set of bookcases, and a desk to effectively depict the period setting. Tia Hawke's costumes are beautiful and period appropriate, as are Cambrian James' hair and makeup designs. Dietlein's lighting is a range of colors, adding a rich element to this somewhat simple story. Lincoln Wright's music direction derives gorgeous harmonies from Johnson and Bailey and while the small off-stage band with Wright on keyboard, along with Cameryn Baum on cello and Chris Hrubes on guitar, may only be a trio they add a lovely, rich component to this chamber musical.
While Daddy Long Legs has a fairly uncomplicated story, it has upbeat and amusing characters and a nostalgic plot that depicts how letter writing used to be a work of art before emails, texts and emojis were the norm. Hale Centre Theatre's production is charming, romantic, and infused with warmth and romance, resulting in a production full of joy that will capture your heart just like Jerusha captures Jervis'.
Hale has implemented many safety protocols for this production, in line with both city and state requirements, including limiting the audience capacity, providing socially distanced seating, and requiring masks for all audience members. A complete list of safety requirements can be found on their website.
Daddy Long Legs runs through November 17, 2020, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480-497-1181
Producers & Casting Directors: David & Corrin Dietlein