Daddy Long Legs

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Daddy Long Legs

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Jerusha Abbott is an orphan at the John Grier asylum in New York in the early 1900s that learns, to her surprise, that a wealthy benefactor wants to pay for her entire college education. All she has to do in return is write him monthly letters about her progress in higher education. The grateful Jerusha decides to call him “Daddy Long Legs.” They wind up exchanging hundreds of letters over four years and in that time Daddy falls helplessly in love with her.

Daddy Long Legs has long legs. It started as a novel by Jeanne Webster in 1912 and in 1955 was turned into a movie starring Fred Astaire. Later, it became a musical play. It was staged in New York last year. It just opened at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, N.J.

The play, with lots of history, is not only charming, but a knockout hit. You cannot help but falling in love with Jerusha yourself in this delightful, touching play about romance, the human spirit and the determination of people to live life the way they want, and not how someone else tells them to live it.

The play starts with the thoroughly lovable Jerusha’s arrival at college. She is feisty and full of pep. College is something she never expected to happen for her. It is Christmas come really early, and she embraces every square inch of college life at her all-girls school. She helps her roommate run for student office, plunges into the study of Shakespeare and decides to become a writer in order to change the world. She makes fast friends with several girls, flirts with boys, becomes the smartest woman at the school and discovers fashion.

Jerusha is also very independent and gets very political. Early in college, around 1909, near the height of the women’s right to vote movement, she whips out a women’s rights sash and drapes it cross her dress. She wails at those who say women should forego intellectual pursuits and become loving housewives instead. She argues, from the day she unpacked her bags to the day she graduates, that women not only need to pursue their dreams, but in a gorgeous song, tells the audience that they need to do it right now. Happiness, she sings, needs to be achieved right away and cannot be some distant dream.

In addition to the history of the women’s voting movement, there is much in the play about life at a woman’s college. Very few women had the chance to attend college in the early 1900s and Jerusha makes the most of her opportunity.

In all of her letters to Daddy Long Legs, whom she assumes is a very old, white-haired man, she chronicles her days at college and explains how she is growing into a young woman. Daddy is absolutely charmed by her, and proud of her, as is every single member of the audience. Then things change. Daddy, real name Jervis Pendleton, which he keeps a secret, even when he spends time with her, is a young, not old, man, and falls in love with her. What follows is a soft and tender love story between the two, as Jerusha, who does not know that Jervis is really Daddy, becomes a woman, a writer and someone very involved in the politics of early twentieth century America.

Not only is the story hopelessly romantic and utterly wonderful, but the music, by Paul Gordon, is mesmerizing. There is no one memorable song, but the collection of tunes is just terrific and really helps to tell the story written by John Caird. The music is a challenge, too, because much of this play is singing by the two stars, Elise Vannerson as Jerusha and Ben Michael as Jervis/Daddy. They handle the musicals numbers nicely.

The pair are marvelous, especially Jerusha. She is intellectual, She is giddy. She is beautiful. She really captures the spirit of an orphan girl with no future who gets one out of the blue with Daddy’s money. There is a lovely scene where Jerusha, who had no real wardrobe, tries to walk about in an expensive dress, holding her hat precariously. Vannerson also has a beatific smile and solid, lyrical voice. She moves about the stage like an angel.

Michael plays his Daddy/Jervis character well. He is just a benefactor at first, but over two hours you see him develop into a man who is simply infatuated with his charge. He has a great sense of innocence, too, almost timidity, when it comes to Jerusha. Director Michael Mastro does a fine job of telling a broad story through just two characters and, along with playwright Caird, gives the audience a lot of history in the show.

The two actors work on a gorgeous wooden library like set designed by Alexis Distler. They also play their parts in a way that you think a large cast is involved in the show.

Does Daddy ever reveal his true identity? Does the story end right? Does true love bloom? See the play!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the George Street Playhouse. Scenic Design: Alex Distler, Costumes: Esther Arroyo, Lighting: Christopher J. Bailey, Sound: Ted Crimy. The play is directed by Michael Mastro. It runs through December 24

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