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Review: A delicate ‘Daddy Long Legs’ boasts two stirring performances. In a two-person musical, that pretty much says it all.

While watching the sweet-tempered and beautifully crafted Fresno premiere of “Daddy Long Legs” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, I kept thinking of a line from “Urinetown.” Officer Lockstock, the narrator, is explaining to the audience that too much exposition can doom a musical.

Little Sally, his comic foil, responds: “How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title, even? That could kill a show pretty good.”

Pictured above: Shawn Williams and Meg Clark own the stage in ‘Daddy Long Legs.’  Photo: Good Company Players

If you’re on the fence whether to see this charmingly acted, beautifully sung two-person musical from Good Company Players. I hope I can convince you to tamp down any qualms you have about its title. Yes, there’s an odd-duck feel to the name, as if you’re about to walk into an icky tale about dysfunctional intergenerational use and abuse; or perhaps be thrust into an arachnophobic’s worst musical nightmare, with production numbers involving silky threads of webbed scenery and a giant cephalothorax with glowing red eyes.

Fear not. Daddy Long Legs is a nickname for a character, and a pretty tame one at that, though the fact that it’s coined in the play’s setting of 1912 explains a lot. A bright and buoyant young woman, Jerusha Abbott (played by a radiant Meg Clark), gives the nickname to a mysterious, anonymous benefactor in her life. Jerusha is an orphan who just graduated from high school, and on the day she learns she’s been awarded a full-ride college scholarship from the benefactor — including living expenses — she catches a silhouetted glimpse of his profile. He’s tall and thin: thus the spider allusion.


Related story: PREVIEW: TWO IS THE LOVELIEST NUMBER IN ‘DADDY LONG LEGS,’ A NEW MUSICAL AT ROGER ROCKA’S

The only requirement from Daddy Long Legs (an equally radiant Shawn Williams), whose real name is Jervis Pendleton, is that Jerusha write him a monthly letter detailing her scholastic progress and any other observations she’d care to include. From a boring person, such letters would be trite and perfunctory. Jerusha is not boring. She’s the type of writer who pours her soul onto the page — she’s bluntly honest, has a big imagination and, most of all, brandishes her fierce sense of whimsy. The musical is based on these letters, and through them both the audience and Mr. Long Legs himself (which, of course, is not his real name) get to know her.

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The question, of course, is whether she will get to know him, and whether the vaguely fond feelings she has toward her benefactor will blossom into something more concrete and romantic.

The 2015 musical is based on the 1912 epistolary novel by Jean Webster, which was also made into a 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but I do get the sense that John Caird, who wrote the book for the musical, and Paul Gordon, who wrote the music and lyrics, have skillfully captured the vintage appeal of the original storyline while dusting off some of the creakier, outdated elements.


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Gordon also wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical version of “Jane Eyre,” an intensely lush score that is one of my unsung favorites. I’m not sure yet if the score for “Daddy Long Legs” falls into that category, but it bears a resemblance to “Jane Eyre” in its accessible, melancholic beauty. One such example is “Like Other Girls,” sung by Jerusha as she explains the toll of her upbringing. The song grows on me with repeated listens, its stirring melody and crisp lyrics evoking a tone and emotions that transport you to Jerusha’s dormitory room. In the indignant tune “I Couldn’t Know Someone Less,” which channels the storyline’s moments of bitterness and hurt, the cello-and-piano heavy recorded orchestration (provided by Clayton Daniel Briggs) provides a plaintive accompaniment to disappointment.

Good Company Players

Director Laurie Pessano and a superlative creative team recreate a slightly prim-and-proper world of time gone by, from the banker’s lamp and wood-paneled walls of Jervis’ study to the abstract forms of blue and green that track with Jerusha’s resilient brand of optimism. The clever set design (by David Pierce) uses old-fashioned trunks and suitcases for various locales and levels. The lighting design (Joielle Adams and Andrea Henrickson) effectively narrows the audience’s focus and makes the story feel more intimate, and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s period costumes are exemplary, as to be expected. Jeff Gwin’s sound design, which includes coordinating the score’s abundant underscoring with spoken dialogue, is first-rate.

All this would be for naught, however, were it not for Clark and Williams. Committing as an audience member to a two-person musical is a lot easier when the two people are as strong and compelling as they are. I’ve rhapsodized at length in numerous reviews about the talents of each in such shows as “Cabaret” and “Something Rotten!” Here, it’s as if they build on that experience with Pessano’s guiding hand, knowing when to economize their acting and when to play it big. They complement each other in terms of acting and singing; I love how balanced they seem up there on stage — smooth, confident and very much in control.

Is the book for “Daddy Long Legs” flawless? No. I joke above about the way the title could seem icky, but I’m also partially serious: If you critique the trope of an older man in a power position manipulating his interactions with a younger woman, there’s something unsettling there. (The historical nature of the piece helps mitigate that discomfort, but the disbelief you must suspend can also make the show feel dated and obvious.) And Jervis’ stubbornness in the second act seems to take up too much breathing space; I feel that at least one peevish bout of his could be eliminated without any harm (and shave 10 minutes or so off the longish second act).

But the heartbeat of the show is strong, thanks to impeccable direction, an enveloping production design, precise diction (I could understand every lyric) and — most of all — the clear-as-a-bell tones and exquisite acting of two wonderful performers. Watching this show becomes a gentle, delicate, memorable experience, like finding a daddy long-legs spider trapped inside your home and setting it free in the great outdoors. Both actions will make you feel better about the world.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you, Donald. I love this review and I LOVED the play! It was beautifully heart warming and poignant and I was sorry when it was over! I hope everyone gets to enjoy it! If I hadn’t left town, I’d have returned for a second viewing

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  • Jim Wilson

    You should check out a copy of the Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron 1955 version of Daddy Long Legs. There were people at that time who felt discomfort about the old man and the young lass tale, but it was a good movie. And Astaire’s dancing and drumming are terrific.

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