Now playing at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art, John Caird’s new musical, “Daddy Long Legs,” uses a nearly forgotten mode of communication to successfully explore themes of selfhood and unrequited love.
Presented by the Arizona Theatre Company, the musical opens with Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis), an orphan at the John Grier Home, receiving word of a once in lifetime opportunity; an anonymous benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (Adelman Hancock), has offered to pay for her college education.
Having seen her essays, Pendleton believes that Abbot possesses the promise to be a successful woman in an ever-changing American society. His only stipulations are that Abbot must write to him monthly without being informed of his identity, while also knowing that he will never respond to her letters.
Originally, the audience is tricked into thinking that Mr. Pendleton, or “Daddy Long Legs,” as Abbott endearingly refers to him, does not enjoy letter writing. However, this guise falls away as Abbot incessantly directs questions and invites conversation with Pendleton in her letters, wanting to know his physical characteristics, opinions, and thoughts. Being a man of the written word, Pendleton eventually cannot resist replying, and they become immersed in a detailed correspondence in the form of duet-style performances.
While Abbott believes her benefactor must be an old man, Pendleton abstains from revealing that he is actually a very eligible bachelor. In fact, Pendleton withholds most information about himself, yet becomes so interested in Abbot that he cannot stop himself from meeting her and pursuing a relationship, all while using another identity. This unfolds as the major tension in the musical, because although the audience can see what Pendleton is up to, Abbot is left in the dark thinking that her benefactor (Daddy Long Legs), and Jervis Pendleton, is two separate people, when really they are one in the same.
The letters provide a way for Abbott to advance as a character, because it is through them that she learns about herself.
With her character, the musical explores the theme of finding oneself in solitude, as Abbott endures many instances of isolation, leaving her no choice but to turn to letter writing.
Set in New York at the turn of the 20th century, the musical subtly references many themes from this era. Composer-lyricist, Paul Gordon, delivers a strong musical score, and Abbott clearly steals the show with her stunning vocal performance and character progression. Pendleton’s character, however, is unable to overcome his cowardice. In the end we see Abbott confront her fears and profess her love, while Pendleton remains stagnant.
Ultimately, the musical achieves success despite the fact that it contains only two characters, and never changes scenery. “Daddy Long Legs,” certainly defends the power of the written word, and might even make you nostalgic for a time that can never be again.