Megan McGinnis & Robert Adelman Hancock in Daddy Long Legs
Although Daddy Long Legs is a perfectly decent, fairly charming old-fashioned musical two-hander, it's hard to see how such a slight, summery piece of work, adapted from one of America's favourite children's novels, can prosper in a cruel, harsh winter of bigger, brasher West End shows.
That flaw might constitute its strength, of course, but although John Caird's sensitive book and Paul Gordon's deft music and lyrics accurately reflect the period feel and decorum of Jean Webster's 1912 epistolary novel, the show never really flies – and certainly not like one of the Roland Petit dance sequences in the Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron 1955 film adaptation with a score by Johnny Mercer.
Caird’s production comes from Lowell, Massachusetts, having originated in California in 2009, with its American protagonists intact: Megan McGinnis, a Broadway Eponine in Les Misérables, as Jerusha Abbott, an orphan in New England with hopes of becoming a writer; and Robert Adelman Hancock as Jervis Pendleton, a mystery benefactor known to Jerusha only as “John Smith,” who stokes her talent by encouraging her to write letters to him.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Jervis, a trustee of the orphanage, has another connection with the college where Jerusha completes her studies, and that she begins to fall in love with him when he strolls around the place in a boater, without knowing that he’s the man whom she’s only glimpsed as a tall, spidery figure in the background, hence the titular nickname.
Jerusha’s awakening coincides with her growing political awareness as a New Woman, but the comic sexual, interdependent conflict between the couple - Svengali and Trilby, Professor Higgins and Eliza - never flares into any sort of theatrical combustion; “Something’s Gotta Give,” as Johnny Mercer famously wrote.
There are some well-crafted musical items, usually introduced by Jerusha then elaborated, or duetted, in a pleasant descant by the otherwise rather anodyne Jervis. But even an away day in New York doesn’t spark a show tune with any oomph or glitter.
And it’s all played out statically (as opposed to ecstatically) on David Farley’s set of Jervis’ mahogany library, which reveals the landscape of their summer retreat in Lock Willow beyond the book-cases, but not the adept little band which remains disappointingly hidden under the musical direction of Caroline Humphris.
McGinnis, taking a role that has been played on screen not only by Caron, but also by Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor and Shirley Temple in earlier movie versions, delivers a carefully and attractively modulated performance that, like the show itself, exerts a sort of insidious, slow-burning sweetness without ever delivering a knock-out punch.