Feb 28, 2020
by Jeanie K. Smith , San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
“Transported.” That’s the word for how this feel-good, quirky musical carries you away, to a different place and time, into an intriguing story promising romance alongside portraits of determination, courage, resilience, and finding one’s own truth. It’s also a two-person show, and the production at Sonoma Arts Live features performers perfect for their roles, superb actors with stellar voices. The bad news? It only runs through March 8, so you need to hurry for your tickets to this rare treat.
Jerusha Abbott (Madison Genovese) has only known orphanhood and the John Grier Home her whole life; but just as she’s about to turn 18, she’s given a surprising opportunity to attend college, all expenses paid, by a charitable trustee, a gentleman who insists he be known only as “John Smith”. Jerusha spies him from a distance as he’s leaving the orphanage, making out just that he’s tall and slender. His rules for his gift include a demand that she write him every month to report on her progress. He also decrees he will never reply or reveal his true identity.
A talented wordsmith and fledgling writer, Jerusha embarks on her one-way correspondence with glee, imagining Mr. Smith as an older, kind man to whom she can write honestly and freely about her experiences and feelings — and dubs him “Daddy Long Legs”. We first hear her letters spoken aloud by herself, but soon her words are picked up by the fictional Mr. Smith, who in reality is Jervis Pendleton (Mischa Stephens), a young well-heeled New Yorker. He’s surprised by her warmth, sense of humor, and astute observations — and an attraction grows. Through song and narrative we watch Jerusha mature, through school and life, as she also “schools” Jervis through her letters.
The musical closely follows Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, unlike earlier adaptations (including Shirley Temple’s Curly Top, or Fred Astaire’sDaddy Long Legs, both of which stray far from their source material). It nicely retains the charm and prescient edge of the book, keeping Jerusha’s strength and spunk and the central story intact. Themes of nascent feminism, career vs. marriage, the value of education, and environment’s triumph over familial limitations come through clearly — all embedded in the halting progress of an unlikely romance.
A sweet, lovely tribute to courage of both head and heart enhanced by lilting tunes, this “musical play” delivers delights and themes still timely in today’s world.
Entirely dependent on the strength of its performers, the show at SAL couldn’t be better cast than with Genovese and Stephens. Genovese’s expressive soprano conveys comedy and pathos, and her characterization makes Jerusha utterly attractive. Stephens’ character is slower to reveal himself, but as he does we see his conflict, doomed to abide by his own rules. Stephens makes Jervis believable and human, and his outstanding vocals blend beautifully with Genovese’s. There’s a lot of humor in the tale, nicely balanced with the bumpy road to romance.
Director Michael Ross deserves kudos for simple staging for visual interest, wisely allowing the story to speak for itself. Don’t look for big dance numbers — it’s a quieter piece, but Ross and his cast keep it interesting and well-paced. His team includes music director Sherrill Peterson (also on piano), scenic design by Ross,Courtney Johnson (also lighting) and Koitney Carson, and effective props by Allison Sutherland. Ross also puts together a neutral palette of period costume. Sound design needs better balance between the excellent pit combo and stage vocals; too often performers are overwhelmed by the amplified band, unnecessary in Andrews Hall. Hopefully this will be sorted for the run.
Audience didn’t need prodding to stand with enthusiastic applause at opening night’s bows. This rare gem is certain to transport you as well.
Music & Lyrics by Paul Gordon
Book by John Caird, based on the novel by Jean Webster
Presented by Sonoma Arts Live through March 8, 2020
Thu/Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sat & Sun at 2:00pm
276 E. Napa Street
Sonoma, CA 95476
Photos by James Carr
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