Any musical with just two performers in charge of moving things along as well as keeping our interest alive for its duration presents a task for them. And any musical adaptation of a classic novel as this one is has the added burden of keeping faith with its source. With that said, “Daddy Long Legs,” as adapted by librettist John Caird and composer Paul Gordon from the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, succeeds in its own sweet way. With this production, its success is largely due to the charm of its two performers — Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael — both of whom are making their George Street Playhouse debuts.
A much smaller-scale production was an unexpected hit with audiences and most critics last season at an off Broadway playhouse where it enjoyed an extended run. Even if bigger is not necessarily better, the audiences at GSP will be able to ooh and ah designer Alexis Distler’s grandiose unit setting of a massive library and other venues before the first notes.
The title should also be familiar to those of you who may recall the considerably expanded and altered 1955 film version that starred Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The story is about a partially unrealized if also basically idealized May/December romance between a precocious young orphaned school girl and a wealthy scholarly older man. It is structured with mainly sung recitatives that convey the contents of primarily one-sided letters delivered over a course of years.
It begins as 18 year-old Jerusha Abbott introduces herself with a disarming aria, “The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home.” She subsequently reveals the genesis of her self-ascribed name Jerusha as from a name she saw on a gravestone and her last name, Abbott, picked from the first page of the phone book.
Notwithstanding shades of both the spunky Little Orphan Annie and the more willful Jane Eyre, Jerusha is blessed with an immediately endearing air of precociousness. As such, she is not inclined to allow her present situation, as one of the older and barely tolerated orphans in residence, prevent her from considering her options. This is revealed through her natural instinct for wit, as exemplified by the brisk and breezy libretto that remains her constant support. It should be noted that the musical’s collaborators, Caird and Gordon, also gave musical life “Jane Eyre,” which opened on Broadway in 2000.
It is easy enough to become smitten by Jerusha’s resolute and spirited personality, as seen through Vannerson’s glowing performance. I especially liked the sound of her mellow slightly sandy soprano voice. This quality makes her lengthy arias float gently through the air without ever becoming piercing. This is an important aspect to her winning performance as we follow Jerusha’s often convoluted travails as they extend into maturity.
At the outset, Jerusha’s talent for writing is noticed by Jervis Pendleton (Ben Michael) a man who decides to call himself by his alias John Smith and who is in reality one of the orphanage’s trustees. The plot begins to bubble with his promise to finance Jerusha’s education with the stipulation that his identity never be disclosed. In addition, the mysterious benefactor insists on a one-sided communication that will only be through letters sent to him by Jerusha once a month — with no expectation for a reply.
To explain the title: It comes from a shadow that Jerusha sees of him on the wall that reminds her of a daddy-long-legs spider. Of course, the man she begins to imagine as “old, gray or maybe bald” is nothing like the real person. Jervis is played with a restrained intensity by the very personable Michael who impressively changes the timbre of his voice on occasion to sound like Jerusha.
Complications inevitably arise with Jerusha’s testy relationship with a snooty schoolmate who is also Jervis’ niece as well with Jervis, who wants to reveal himself but not as the man who has been her benefactor. You can put to rest any insinuation as Jerusha continues to call him “Daddy” in her epistles with its somewhat awkward connotation.
A romantic denouement is as inevitable as well as is the increasingly sophisticated tone of the letters. While Jerusha remains the focus of our interest, there are ample moments for an increasingly impassioned Jervis to reflect on his life and his motives, mostly as he spends his alone time in his library.
Although the setting tends to overwhelm the presence of its two primarily introspective characters, the direction by Michael Mastro deals well enough with the space and the distance between two characters. It is quite a feat to keep an audience engrossed with two characters who basically spend most of their time out of each other’s reach, but thankfully not out of each other’s thoughts and hearts.
Some might quibble that there is an inherently static quality to the action. Those with a little patience for the anticipated romantic revelation and with an ear for music that endears rather than unnerves, “Daddy Long Legs” may prompt you to say, as does the final song that “All This Time” was rather pleasantly spent.
Daddy Long Legs, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Saturday, December 24. $20 to $79. 732-846-2895 or www.gsponline.org.