You might have noticed that things are getting a little strident out in the real world. If you're weary of hearing about legitimate rape and the 47 percent, if you wince at the phrase "doubling down," then it might interest you to know that the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is offering an antidote to the here and now. All this month, and continuing through the weekend prior to the November 6 election, the Rep is indulging in century-old nostalgia. The two-character chamber musical Daddy Long Legs is about cuddly coziness. The show must be doing something right, because by evening's end the Loretto-Hilton Center is infused with an infectious warmth.
Based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, the story begins in 1908 and tracks the education of seventeen-year-old Jerusha Abbott, who has lived her entire life in poverty at an orphanage. An anonymous trustee of the institution, known only as "John Smith," sees talent in the girl's writing and offers to pay her way through college. In return she must write him a monthly letter. Because Jerusha only saw her unknown benefactor's elongated shadow on the wall, she addresses her missives to Daddy Long Legs. Webster's book is composed solely of Jerusha's letters, which reveal her as lively and intelligent. Although early on she is insecure in this rarefied new world, as Jerusha works her way through this indeterminate girls-only college (we never learn its name or precise locale), she sheds her shy cocoon like the proverbial butterfly, emerging as a clone of Little Women's book-writing Jo March.
But there's more to college than cracking the books. In addition to her constant correspondence about the exhilaration of learning, Jerusha (Ephie Aardema, lithe and lilting) finds time to grow attracted to Jervis Pendleton (Kevin Earley, sturdy and appealing), the thirtysomething uncle of one of her roommates. Now the structure of novel and musical diverge. In the book, the reader does not learn until nearly the final page that John Smith and Jervis Pendleton are one and the same. Onstage, that secret must be revealed early on. So we get a protracted "duplicitous boy lies to naive girl" story. Jerusha tells Jervis about her decrepit old benefactor (expect lots of age jokes); she also confides to Daddy Long Legs about her growing affection for Uncle Jervis. Tootsie followed pretty much the same scenario, only in drag.
Through the decades there have been numerous movie adaptations of Daddy Long Legs, but no film was as true to the novel as is this musical. Not only does the show faithfully adhere to the arc of the story, it even improves on the novel's abrupt ending. But the musical is in no hurry to get to that finale. Composer Paul Gordon has written lots of songs, to marginal effect. And because there are so many songs, sung by only two characters, the emphasis seems to be on variety for variety's sake. We hear country twangs and intimations of soft rock, which don't necessarily jibe with 1912.
Director John Caird (Nicholas Nickleby, Les Misérables) also wrote the script; his staging mostly involves cluttering the set with unnecessary suitcases and forcing Jerusha to stare into space as she sings. (The latter lets us know she's writing letters.) But despite its shortcomings, the show is a crowd pleaser — in large measure because it knows how to make the audience participate. By evening's end, viewers are no longer merely watching Daddy Long Legs; they have become invested in these two people. Investment can compensate for many a shortcoming.
A footnote: The Rep is selling Daddy Long Legs as "a world premiere musical." This is false. Over the past three years, the show has received numerous stagings throughout the U.S. As attractive as these two actors are, they aren't the A-team. (The original Jerusha is about to open in the London Daddy Long Legs.) By no stretch of imagination or definition should the Rep production be labeled a "world premiere."