The Phoenix Theatre Company continues its 2021 season with two stories of strong and unique women — one, a real life cultural icon and the other, a work of adapted fiction. BECOMING DR. RUTH and DADDY LONG LEGS run concurrently at the Mainstage Theatre and at the Hormel Theatre, respectively. We caught opening night at the Hormel and are excited to share our experience with you.
Teenage Jerusha Abbott is the oldest resident orphan of the John Grier Home. One day, she catches a glimpse of a group of departing trustees and takes note of the elongated departing shadow of one of them. Fancifully, she dubs the unseen gentleman “Daddy Long Legs”.
Shortly afterwards, Jerusha finds that this selfsame trustee has offered to put her through college. In return, he requires monthly letters from Jerusha reporting her progress. It seems like a simple enough request. But Jerusha is no ordinary girl!
Most people know “Daddy Long Legs” as the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Like the movie, the stage musical is based on the 1912 novel “Daddy-Long-Legs” by Jean Webster. If you’ve seen the film, you might want to put aside your biases for (or against) Hollywood glitz and glamour. Instead, prepare yourself to be treated to a well-crafted story and some seriously awesome dramatic and vocal performances by two very talented young actors.
Kathlynn Rodin plays the role of the abandoned waif Jerusha Abbott. True to Jerusha’s character, Rodin’s performance is pure and strong. It is uninhibited and sharp with wit, but with innocence and compassion. As Jerusha, Rodin exudes innate poise and self-confidence. Those attributes resonate in Rodin’s crisp, clear voice. Confidence, defiance and resolve all come through while maintaining a good-natured attitude. We orphans may not be cultured, but we’re thick-skinned and perseverant!
James D. Gish plays Jervis Pendleton III, a reclusive gentleman of means and Jerusha’s anonymous benefactor. The role is a complex one, to say the least. This man has no idea what he is in for, taking a teenage girl under his wing while giving her free reign to speak to him as she pleases and to shape her own destiny. Gish’s portrayal of Pendleton is an exercise in perfectly subdued dramatic presence, awkward indecisiveness, and wicked comic timing. As a vocalist, Gish demonstrates a gift for imbuing a sense of casual conversation into his singing. He plays with notes as you would play with eccentric thoughts. A little boy at heart, in the body of a grown man with responsibilities.
Jerusha accepts the trustee’s offer — he calls himself John Smith, but it’s a flimsy disguise. She immediately dispenses with the false moniker and calls him “Daddy Long Legs”. Thus begins her four year journey through college study and summer trips abroad and to her trustee’s family farm, all the while diligently writing her status reports to this unseen benefactor who calls himself John Smith.
Things begin to fall apart very quickly as Jerusha’s thoughts and feelings spill freely onto the pages of her letters. As it is stipulated that he, John Smith, would never write back, he could only speculate on her meanings, suffer through her misinterpretations, and remain a distant and silent observer of Jerusha’s highs and lows, her accomplishments and her disappointments.
The rules of engagement imposed by “Daddy” slowly act to dismantle their tenuous relationship. And this is where all the really interesting things start to happen!
DADDY LONG LEGS is the second production of The Phoenix Theatre Company’s 2021 season to be back indoors, reintroducing patrons to the Mainstage and Hormel theatres after many months on an outdoor stage at nearby United Methodist Church. (Please see some of our previous outdoor venue reviews here and here.) With relaxed social distancing, safety procedures remain in place, such as temperature checks and masks for all employees of the Theatre. Otherwise, masks are optional for anyone who is fully vaccinated.
The Hormel Theatre is an intimate space. At half or a third the size of the Mainstage, other than the number of seats, nothing about it is scaled down. The music is clear and crisp, and blends perfectly with the vocals. For DADDY LONG LEGS, a three piece ensemble of piano, guitar and cello are sufficient to fill the theater with just the right amount of accompaniment and atmosphere. The set dressing is meticulous in its detail and is neither cluttered nor sparse. Production design is so well thought out in every detail, melding two separate and simultaneous interior locations, and a vast and changing exterior backdrop. The same illusion of exterior also supports the epistolary style of the story. Overall, a flawless production. Kudos to The Phoenix Theatre Company!