11/7/2020 DADDY LONG LEGS Pumphouse Letters
My Kind Reader:
I hope this letter finds you healthy and sane. It has been a hectic year, and you are all deserving of a respite from all the Sturm und Drang of this week just past. Since half of you strongly disagree with the other half on concerns beyond the scope of this letter, I shall endeavor to focus on topics of more universal regard, keeping our minds and our hearts free of the opprobrium that seems to be the guiding force of our daily interactions with those we stubbornly continue to respect, even love.
Yester-eve, I had the singular pleasure of witnessing (on my electronic entertainment device) a two-person musical, curiously entitled “Daddy Longs Legs,” produced and streamed (is that the correct word?) from Cartersville’s Legion Theatre, currently occupied by Pumphouse Players and Lock Willow Productions. Before you reach an erroneous conclusion, this is not a stage adaptation of the 1955 Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron movie musical, although it is based on the self-same 1912 epistolary novel by American writer Jean Webster.
To summarize, the story, like the novel, is told in a series of letters from orphan Miss Jerusha Abbott to her benefactor, “Mr. John Smith,” with a few letters in return not from “Mr. Smith,” but from a young orphanage patron, Mr. Jervis Pendleton, uncle to one of Miss Abbott’s college friends, and a surprisingly likeable young man despite his association with the Pendleton family. “Mr. Smith,” for reasons quickly enumerated by the plot, has chosen to pay for Miss Abbott’s college education, with the goal of her becoming a professional writer. His only conditions are that they must never meet, and that he will never write in return.
At the peril of incurring the wrath of those overseers whom some call the “Spoiler Police,” I will tell you what you may have guessed, and what is revealed near the start, but to what Miss Abbott remains oblivious – “Mr. Smith” is, in fact, young Jervis Pendleton, who finds himself enraptured by Miss Abbott’s letters, finding her appealing and intelligent in equal measure.
I can’t be less than honest with you, so I have to confess to finding this story somewhat inimical to our century-later ethos and standards. Mr. Pendleton uses his “Mr. Smith” alias to interfere with Miss Abbott’s association with other young men, despite her heart being set on only him. He insists she not accompany her friends on Summer Excursions, and bridles in 1910-era chauvinism when she insists on taking a summer job rather than going to Paris. Despite his charm, I find some of his actions downright deplorable, and often felt that Miss Abbott could “do so much better.” At least when judged by our 2020 sense of right and wrong.
But this is based on a 1912 novel, and therefore must exist with 1912 paradigms. To fully appreciate it, we must shrug off our modern paradigms, and “just go with it,” as young people say now. This “disconnect” only tempered my enjoyment; it did not undercut the very real pleasures to be had from the experience.
Let us first praise the book writer, John Caird, the erstwhile British-man who previously adapted “Les Miserable” and “Jane Eyre” for the musical stage. He seems to be aware of the paradigm shift I wrote of earlier and gives Jervis enough charm and good will that we are more able to forgive (well, overlook) his 1912 mindset.
Let us also give muted praise to Paul Gordon, songwriter, who previously gave us the exquisite “Jane Eyre” score, and who seems to be giving Jane Austen herself a musical renaissance (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Emma” have all seen adaptations with his music). As long as I am being honest, I have to confess I did find this score not nearly as rapturously gorgeous as I found “Jane Eyre,” with no real standout numbers that appealed to my emotional core. But the score did appeal to my head, so this may be one of those scores that increases in appeal the more I listen to it. And I do plan on listening to it more and again.
This production had its genesis with director Ashley Elliott and producer and leading actress Christie Lee Fisher (full bias alert – I have worked with Ms. Fisher before, remain friendly with her, and tend to view all her work through my favorite approval-tinted spectacles) wanting to help Pumphouse Players financially weather the current pandemic shut-downs, founding “Lock Willow Productions” to produce this piece. Lock Willow, is, of course, the farm owned by the Pendleton family and features heavily in the story.
I found (as I usually do) Ms. Fisher’s performance as Miss Abbott to be compelling and honest and frank, though the video sound was not especially charitable to her voice (or to that of her co-star, Jonathan Whitmire). Still, they had a palpable chemistry, despite rarely sharing a scene, and the photographic close-ups used throughout were extraordinarily kind to the “behind the eyes” subtexts that can make performances truly come to vividly memorable life.
Staged on the Legion Theatre’s small stage with a set designed by Mr. Whitmire, it divides the space between “Mr. Smith’s” office and Miss Abbott’s chambers (both college and orphanage), keeping the actors “socially distanced” (for the most part) and leaving the “emotionally connected’ aspect to be (successfully) managed by the performances. Ms. Elliott keeps the staging simple, and the pace lyrical, getting generous support from Musical Director Matthew Luce (aided, I have no doubt, by her own contributions on the violin).
It appears that I have forgotten to mention he significance of the title. At the start, Miss Abbot catches a glimpse of “Mr. Smith’s” silhouette, long and lanky, almost spider-like, leading her to affectionately refer to him as “Daddy Long Legs,” even opening many of her letters with that sobriquet. My memory lapse may be rooted in that same skeptical area of my brain that rejects the 1912 mindset that really underscores the paternalistic nature of Mr. Pendleton’s feelings towards Miss Abbott and the role wealth and money have in engendering feelings of romance, not to mention the absurd secrecy (and “strings”) on his philanthropy.
But I digress.
In conclusion, Kind Reader, I hope my reservations about the original source do not sully your anticipation of this musical, a gentle and nostalgic look at first love and adolescence, an ode to a woman finding her place in her flawed society, a paean to the lost art of written correspondence, and a platform for the compellingly memorable performances by Ms. Fisher and Mr. Whitmire.
As always, I remain your humble servant, etc. etc. etc.
The writer formerly known as Dedalus
(BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #DaddyLongLegs #PumphouseTheatre #LockWillowProductions)