SANDY — Let’s just get to the point. Kelly Coombs’s lead performance in Hale Centre Theatre’s Daddy Long Legs is towering. One of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Coombs plays Jerusha, a young woman just aging out of a New York orphanage in this musical adaptation of the 1912 Jean Webster novel.
The musical, written by John Caird with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, debuted in the West End, then ran Off Broadway in 2015. What’s it like? It feels like a young adult romance. Young women (or anyone who loves a good rom com) will find plenty to enjoy in this period piece, which is a two-person show featuring Jerusha and the mysterious man paying for her education (played by David Paul Smith). His real name is Jervis, but she calls him “Daddy Long Legs.”
Why the creepy name? Because she only knows him by his shadow, and he has super long legs like the eponymous spider. Fortunately for arachnophobes, there are no actual spiders onstage, although Jerusha does mime picking one up at one point.
The musical is based on letters exchanged between the protagonists. Jersusha gushes about her social and educational pursuits in college, as Jervis strains to keep his identity a secret by writing under his secretary’s name. Things get complicated quickly because, unlike most philanthropists, Jervis is not a rich old coot after all, but a fairly attractive (and super rich) young man. It’s not long before the two are clearly on course for a romantic collision.
This was a demanding show with constant, rapid dialogue between the two characters—Gilmore Girls style. Plus, almost the entire show was sung, including while Coombs had to change costumes (designed by Peggy Willis) onstage at least 30 times to mark the passage of time. Both actors passed the test of this demanding show without trouble.
Coombs gave a perfect performance, and there is nothing that could improve it. She looked ready to handle a leading role on any stage in the country. Every line reading, note and movement were beyond reproach. To hear a sentence from her as Jerusha is to experience a successful character study. She was pugnacious, spunky and irrepressible. And what a voice! Early in the first act, I sat back in my chair in amazement as she performed a vocal trill while leaping down a stairway. She sang pure, beautifully and magnificently. (By the way, there’s no way a gorgeous starlet like Coombs would go 18 years in an orphanage without being adopted. Just sayin’.)
Smith’s acting was phenomenal, with great timing and movement. He adopted an announcer’s voice reminiscent of FDR’s, which was a little distracting but plausible for the time and place. There were times he sounded flat dueting with Coombs, but overall his singing performance was fabulous. Smith’s character does some pretty sketchy, controlling and manipulative things, which will probably make some audience members uncomfortable, although not as uncomfortable as they seemed at the show’s handful of plugs for atheism and socialism. However, the character does repent of his misdeeds, and all is well in the end.
The music is good. The Off Broadway production even won a Drama Desk award for Outstanding Book of a Musical. There were no show-stoppers or anything to make you want to get the soundtrack, but it was a memorable score that mostly functioned to move the story along. I appreciated the live band (consisting of a trio: piano, cello, and guitar) and am so glad Hale is doing more of this now. I hope Hale continues having live music for every show.
As a two-person musical with no set changes, director Jennifer Hill Barlow overcame monumental challenges to stage an engaging, moving and entertaining show. Her placement and movement of the characters was commendable, and the pulley system between the two was a stroke of genius (scenic design was by Madeline Ashton). The high-quality microphones and sound system (sound design by Dan Morgan) were also a highlight.
However, the pacing lagged in the second act, mostly because it is obvious by midway through the first act it is how the show’s plot would unfold. By the time the audience was plodding through Act 2, the two (and only two) characters were firmly established and no plot twists developed—things were just inching slowly along to their obvious conclusion. I suspect part of this might also be due to the genre and my own sex, since I feel the same about every romance not written by Jane Austen.
There is no shortage of things to praise in this fabulous production of Daddy Long Legs. The audience laughed often and leapt to its feet to offer a standing ovation. I recommend Hale’s Daddy Long Legs to anyone who enjoys musical romances, especially young women. I also highly recommend pursuing the digital program, if only to see this witty ad from Mountain America: “Fresh out of mysterious benefactors? Get a loan from us!”