‘Daddy Long Legs’ weaves an absorbing web at George Street Playhouse

Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael co-star in "Daddy Long Legs," which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Dec. 24.


Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael co-star in “Daddy Long Legs,” which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Dec. 24.

If you’re looking for an uplifting theatrical production this holiday season, you’re not going to do much better than “Daddy Long Legs,” which opened on Friday at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Though only tangentially connected to the holiday season itself — a few scenes mention or take place during Christmas vacations — it’s a warm-hearted, life-affirming musical, buoyed by a luminous performance by Elise Vannerson, a California native making her GSP debut. The only other actor in the play, Ben Michael – also making his GSP debut — is very good as well, and the two sing beautifully, both separately and apart.

The play is based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster that previously has had many stage and screen adaptations (including a 1955 film co-starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron). This new two-person musical version, featuring music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird — who worked together on the Tony-nominated “Jane Eyre” — premiered in California in 2009, and was presented off-Broadway last year. In New Brunswick, a three-person offstage band (a pianist, guitarist and cellist) provided the music.

At the start of the play, Jerusha Abbott, played by Vannerson, is 17, and bemoaning her sad existence as the oldest resident of a dreary orphanage. Then she gets some startling news: One of the orphanage’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton (played by Michael)  — whom she has never met, but who has taken notice of her writing talent — offers to pay for her college. He wants to remain anonymous, but asks her to send him letters, regularly, as a way for her to keep him informed on her progress and hone her writing skills.

Most of the play is made up of her singing those letters, or him singing them as he reads them, or the two singing them together as duets, though they are in separate rooms, many miles apart.

Since he remains unknown to her, she imagines him as a kind, wise, eccentric old man — she calls him Daddy Long Legs because she caught a glimpse of him from behind once at the orphanage, and saw that he was tall.

Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael in "Daddy Long Legs."

Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael in “Daddy Long Legs.”

He is, in reality, handsome, and not much older than she is. But despite his wealth, he is as sad and lonely as she was before he turned her life around.

He doesn’t respond to her letters, except when posing as his own secretary. And her writing becomes a sort of psychotherapy, in which his silence draws her out and she wrestles with her issues (with him reading along, every step of the way).

Inevitably, he finds himself captivated by her and her “fearless turn of phrase,” and starts falling in love.

He happens to be the uncle of one of Jerusha’s college friends. And so he pays a visit to campus, just so he can meet her. Once he does, he falls in love even more deeply. And she is charmed by him as well. She writes to Daddy Long Legs, telling him about this guy, Jervis, whom she has met, and who she thinks is “as sweet as a lamb.”

Following the laws of romantic comedies — and this is one, though it also has a feminist subtext — some contrived complications ensue. In real life, Jervis would just tell Jerusha he’s Daddy Long Legs; she’d be surprised, but they would laugh about it and go on with their relationship. But here, he can’t bring himself to tell her the truth. And so he keeps the ruse up, and selfishly tries to manipulate her from afar when she develops a mild romantic interest in someone else.

Jerusha, unaware of Daddy Long Legs’ real motivation, grows angry and resentful. Everything goes wrong before it magically, finally, goes right. (I don’t believe this is a spoiler, since in a play like this, the happy ending is inevitable.)

I don’t usually have much use for romantic comedies. But I found this one fresh — due to its unusual, epistolary nature — and utterly charming.

“Daddy Long Legs” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Dec. 24; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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