LEHI — I thought I hated romances. To me, the characters and plots always seemed to feel contrived and unnatural. So imagine my surprise after seeing “Daddy Long Legs”, a romantic vehicle, a few years ago that I more than liked it. I loved it.

Smart, hilarious and touching, the musical — which premiered in the West End in 2012, exactly a century after the book it was based on was published — has become one of the most popular musicals in Utah, and for good reason. The book (by John Caird), music and lyrics (by Paul Gordon) are excellent and full of laughs and heart. It also probably helps that it only features two characters and a relatively small number of locations—in other words, very production and budget friendly.

The fictional story concerns a disadvantaged young woman, Jerusha, who never knew her parents, and a mysterious benefactor, Jervis, who pays for her education (this is the first time he’s sponsored a female). The musical consists mainly of letters between the two, which is far more engaging than it sounds, thanks to their clever interchanges and the strength of the writing.

One of the reasons the musical succeeds is because it’s more about human growth and self discovery than mushy love — both characters grow into love as a result of the growth they experience thanks to the other. In Jerusha’s case, it’s growing from “the oldest orphan of the John Grier home” into a college graduate and published author. In Jervis’s, it’s from a socially awkward recluse philanthropist into a man capable of love — not just financial kindness, but real human affection.

Lehi Arts Council’s production of “Daddy Long Legs” is a fabulous entry into this cherished musical’s history in Utah. Kelsea Smellie gave a showstopping performance as Jerusha (she plays the role Fridays and Mondays). Smellie showcased a phenomenal musical theater singing voice, with natural entrances, powerful support and control, and most importantly, excellent phrasing that expressed the text to the audience. Her diction, expression and physical movements truly conveyed the character.

Christian Wawro as Jervis and Kelsie Smellie as Jerusha in Lehi Arts’ “Daddy Long Legs”.

In Act II as her character grows from a girl to a woman, Smellie’s acting reached another level. Her expression of emotion as she and Jervis begin to feud was touching. In fact, her best line reading may have been when she tersely ended a curt letter with “Signed, Jerusha Abbott, Miss”; the fact that Smellie could bring character and storytelling to such a rote line was truly impressive.

Both Smellie and her counterpart Christian Wawro (who plays Jervis Fridays and Mondays) nailed the punchlines and constant humor of the musical. In their hands, the laughs practically never stopped. Wawro as Jervis gave a warm, gentle performance and was excellent at small movements and expression and had a nice vibrato. Direction by Brighton Sloan (who writes an fabulous and poignant director’s note) kept the energy up with purposeful movements — not easy for a two-character show. Sloan’s concealment of Jervis’ face until his line “She thinks I’m old” created a great punchline in particular. Smart.

Lauri Baird’s stunning scenic design created distinct worlds for both characters. On Jervis’ side, a man’s study — busy with books, a writing desk and the accouterments of professional life. His side of the stage was permeated with browns, blacks and maroon and set on a wood paneled floor. On Jerusha’s side, there are warmer creams and pastel blues, a sunhat, flowers and privacy screen on a white and gray-blue platform. Each piece onstage communicated the nature of the characters, and their dominant colors also smartly translated into the costumes as well (also designed by Baird). 

The wonderful set design was capped with a cyclorama of wooden slats set against the backstage wall. Ingeniously, the slats were set a few inches from the wall, which allowed lighting (designed by Elizabeth Griffiths) to shine through for a striking image. Phrases from the musical were projected onto walls on both sides of the stage, which looked nice although I found it more distracting than useful. Perhaps it would be more useful for dates (there are a lot of them) rather than simple words like “imagination.”

The production featured a live band, a much appreciated choice which brought life to the stage. Pianist Eliza Taylor, guitarist Adam Keith and cellist Chase Radmall were solid additions — Radmall added humanity and longing to numbers like “The Secret to Happiness” and Keith’s hammer-ons added a nice flavor as well. As is practically inevitable in community-level sound production, the guitar picking was overwhelmed by the piano at times, but generally the blend between the three instruments was good, if a little piano heavy. Microphones were flawless, and although the music at first seemed like it may overwhelm the voices, these fears vanished almost immediately thanks to the work of sound operator Jasmine Kahoush.

The Lehi Arts Center features an intimate thrust stage. It’s no exaggeration to say every member of the audience could probably touch the actors. Interestingly, the actors of this production kept their eye lines high instead of directly engaging with the audience, a design choice that doesn’t make that much of a difference and probably improves focus.

While Smellie’s performance alone warrants recommendation for this show, Lehi Arts’ production of “Daddy Long Legs” is an excellent production which great directorial and technical choices. This is a hilarious, human story for everyone — even those who think they hate romances.

Daddy Long Legs plays Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings with Saturday matinees through May 18 at Lehi Arts Center (685 North Center Lehi). Tickets are a steal at $12-15. For more information, visit lehiarts.org.