Delicacy and restraint are not qualities commonly associated with contemporary musicals. But John Caird and Paul Gordon’s Daddy Long Legs, currently receiving its world premiere at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, is refreshingly devoid of razzle-dazzle. The two creators, both Broadway veterans, have faith that audiences will be drawn into a quiet story about a feisty young orphan and the anonymous benefactor who puts her through college. They win their bet thanks to skillful storytelling, enticing songs, and superb performances.
The 1912 novel they adapted into a two-person show consists of letters Jerusha Abbott writes to her sponsor, whom she nicknames Daddy Long Legs. Caird (Les Miserables) and Gordon (Emma, Jane Eyre) retain that format, with one welcome addition: The benefactor, a disaffected member of a wealthy family, also writes (unsent) letters back to her. This way, both characters get to describe their evolving emotions, which center on the conflict between love and control.
The letters-roughly half of which are spoken, and half sung-describe Jerusha’s coming of age and development as a writer. The life lessons she learns are timeless: Women deserve full equality; success is as much a matter of perseverance as talent; life is to be lived in the moment. It’s good material-witty, eloquent, and emotionally resonant-but the miracle is the way Caird keeps it from becoming theatrically static. Often, Jerusha will begin reciting a letter as she writes it, then Jervis (her benefactor) will pick up the narration, his inflections and body language reflecting his state of mind as he reads it. This back-and-forth makes their exchanges feel surprisingly intimate.
Gordon’s music is more in a folk-pop style than Broadway, but it succeeds in setting a mood and conveying subtle emotional shifts. The two performers, Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock, create vivid, easily relatable characters. From here, the show moves to the Bay Area and beyond, but some tweaking is in order before the next stop. The second act drags a bit; themes that have already been successfully stated through the storytelling are made overly explicit. Shave off 20 minutes, turn it into an intermission-less piece, and this Daddy could have legs.