Nowadays, it’s rare that we come across a story that captures the poignancy of romance as it blooms over time, as it coalesces patiently and in due course. For Jervis Pendleton, a mild-mannered man and well-intentioned benefactor, and Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home, who is chosen by the former to receive a full-ride scholarship at a women’s college on the condition of a letter chronicling her progress being sent each month, exists a symbiotic relationship founded on mystery. Yet, in this musical by composer/lyricist Paul Gordon, and book by John Caird — which is based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster that inspired the Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron-starring film in 1955 — the nature of good deeds and philanthropy sows the seeds of much more in the lush garden of selfless love.
This “Great Expectations”-esque narrative is exquisitely illustrated in International City Theatre’s 2018 season opener of “Daddy Long Legs” in Long Beach, CA (through March 11th), which is perspicaciously directed by Mary Jo DuPrey, produced by caryn desai [sic], and features a skillful musical direction and piano accompaniment by Bill Wolfe (along with guitarist Blake Baldwin and cellist Daniel Smith). It’s a Southern California homecoming of sorts for the show which initially debuted at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre in 2009, before catching hold in London’s prestigious West End, Off Broadway, and then internationally in Canada, Japan, and South Korea.
The musical is strongly and admirably held together by a two-person cast – Dino Nicandros as Jervis and Ashley Ruth Jones as Jerusha – who share a lovely camaraderie and chemistry on an appropriately no-frills stage designed by Ellen Lenbergs. Both performers accomplish the difficult task and paradox of not acknowledging each other for the majority of the show, even as they’re only mere inches apart. As they look out and away, with a sense of forlorn longing, we are affected by not only the inscrutableness of their relationship, but the perceived distance between them, and the obstacles they would to overcome for them to truly discover each other.
Even more so than that, the actors are responsible for, and succeed wonderfully, in recounting an exchange of letters between their characters over a several-year period (while Jerusha is attending college and beyond). As we learn of the evolution and changing dynamics of Jerusha and Jervis’ connection, via a wide-ranging collection of time stamps, new settings, and characters that play a big role in the plot but exist in name only, we come to terms with the true meaning of charity and “just who [has been] helping who?”
This question is alluded to and explored at the very outset when the shy Manhattan mogul, Jervis, is reticent about satiating Jerusha’s inquisitiveness – about whether he’s gray or bald – and instead uses a faux secretary to represent his alternate identity of Daddy Long Legs/John Smith to fuel their correspondence. As his alter ego, Jervis also gauges Jerusha’s interests as she becomes acquainted with peers who threaten to pull her away from him, even as he gets to know Jerusha as himself, but under a false pretense. As Jervis, Nicandros does an admirable job of emoting the agony of his love, by overanalyzing Jerusha’s every word, and his growing intrigue for his beneficiary which is held back by his understandable apprehension for potentially not being accepted for the imperfect man that he is.
Moreover, besides his emotively love-struck expressions, Nicandros gets across his wistfulness for Jerusha with the resounding timbre of his bari-tenor voice that effectively reaches for emotional depths that are powerfully manifested for the audience in songs like “What Does She Mean By Love?”, “When Shall We Meet?”, “The Man I’ll Never Be,” and especially the insightfully tender “Charity.”
As Nicandros’ co-star, Ashley Ruth Jones is relatable, heartfelt, and inspiring as the orphan who yearns to grow out of her past to become the woman she was always meant to be. In fact, as an early 20th century character, Jerusha is very laudable even one-hundred years later, for she is reverential, motivated by a curiosity about the world she never knew, and driven to realize her ambition as an empowered novelist. And, though she is grateful for Jervis’ financial assistance, she is never obligated to him and his affections, but rather makes decisions for herself and of her own volition.
Over the two acts, we observe this transformation in Jerusha (as well as Jervis), such that, despite the act of kindness binding the protagonists together, nobody owes anyone anything. Jones is excellent at portraying her persona’s burgeoning individuality by capturing a breadth of feeling that is of impressive and affective range. Jones is also able to get across very discrete sentiments when uttering the words of a single letter that she is writing Nicandros’ Jervis, or when, she uses the beautifully clear coloratura and vibrato in her voice to sing “the Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home,” “The Secret of Happiness,” the tear-jerking “Graduation Day,” and amorously tormenting “I Have Torn You From My Heart.”
Overall, “Daddy Long Legs” is a highly recommended and intimate production presented by the International City Theatre, now in its 33rd season, which reminds us that love can never be paid for or negotiated. Acts of charity occur independently of romance, and this musical, which melds Webster’s historical novel with sprinkles of modern sensibilities, serves as both a reverence for the past and an eye toward a collaborative future where romance develops out of respect as opposed to duty or ulterior motives.
For more information about “Daddy Long Legs” at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, please visit ictlongbeach.org