Daddy Long Legs:  A romantic confection for the holiday season

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Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael play Jerusha and Jervis in "Daddy Long Legs" at George Street Playhouse, Nov. 29 - Dec. 24, 2016. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick has found a sweet, romantic gem of a show in their latest production, Daddy Long Legs.

George Street Playhouse has given us two gifts this season.  First is the show itself, a two-character musical with a three-piece musical ensemble (piano, guitar, and cello).  Set in and around New England and New York during the years from 1908 to 1912, the story tells of Jerusha Abbott, an 18 year old orphan girl.  Her life is changed when one of the orphanage’s trustees, the slightly-older Jervis Pendleton, takes it upon himself to finance a college education for her – with the stipulation that he remain unknown to his protégée, yet requiring her to write monthly progress reports to him under the name John Smith.  But she writes her letters to “Daddy Long Legs”, a pet name based on the only image she has of him – his shadow on a wall, with long spindly legs.

"Daddy Long Legs" at George Street Playhouse
Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael play Jerusha and Jervis in “Daddy Long Legs” at George Street Playhouse, Nov. 29 – Dec. 24, 2016. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The name catches his attention, and instead of ignoring her letters as he intended, he reads them. Their four-year epistolary relationship (although he steadfastly refuses to write her) forms the basis for the show.

The second gift is Elise Vannerson in the role of Jerusha. The actress, making her debut at George Street Playhouse, captivates the audience from her first appearance, singing of what life is like for “The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home.” Her sweet yet strong appeal is the major asset of the show, and she expertly handles the subtleties of her transformation from poor orphan to smart, determined graduate without losing touch with the qualities that won us from the start. She is particularly outstanding, as singer and actress, performing a ballad near the end of act one, “The Secret of Happiness”.

Scene from "Daddy Long Legs" at George Street Playhouse
Ben Michael plays Jervis in “Daddy Long Legs” at George Street Playhouse, Nov. 29 – Dec. 24, 2016. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

While Ben Michael is a good singer/actor, less effort was put into rounding out his character, Jervis, by the show’s creators, playwright John Caird and composer/lyricist Paul Gordon.  Consequently, for a large portion of the show, we see Jervis either reacting to the contents of letters while Jerusha sings them, or trying to write and reveal his true identity only to end up tossing the stillborn letters away.  Also, while Jerusha’s transformation is accompanied by smart, period-correct costumes (credit here goes to costume designer Esther Arroyo), Jarvis retains the same suit from beginning to end, save for an occasional change of hat.  Still, given the material he had to work with, Mr. Michael proves himself a strong partner to Ms. Vannerson. They bring a sense of the excitement and wonder of discovering the new in an early second-act number, “My Manhattan.” In their second-act scenes together, they combine well under the direction of George Street’s resident artistic director, Michael Mastro, creating in the audience’s mind tantalizing questions about how their relationship will play out.

Fall under the spell of romance growing gradually between kindred spirits, and get your first glimpse of budding star Elise Vannerson, by seeing the lovely musical treat, Daddy Long Legs.

Daddy Long Legs is being presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through December 24th.  For tickets and information, visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.