Daddy Long Legs performed in the James J. Hill House in St. Paul is as intimate a production of a musical as I’ve ever attended. A chamber musical with only two actors standing at times only a foot away from and actually making eye contact with you. The stage is set in the main hall of the grand old mansion, chairs seated around the area the actors will occupy along with a few desks and tables that makes up the minimal set. They occasionally climb the stairway as well at the top of which on the first landing is where the four musicians play from. And here is the amazing thing, they are performing in the a hallway/stairway of a big old house, there is a four piece musical ensemble playing at the top of the stairs and this was one of the best sounding musicals I’ve heard. The balance between the musicians and the Performers was perfect, every word was clear, not a lyric was lost.
Maddie Olsem plays Jerusha Abbott a orphan who has grown up in the John Grier Home for Orphans in the early 1900’s. She is called into Mrs. Lippett’s, the headmatron of the house, office. She is informed that a Mr. John Smith a trustee of the orphanage, having read some essays she had written has decided to send her to college, paying her tuition, room and board, and giving her a monthly allowance. He has devised a 9 point plan for her, one of the points being that she must write to him regularly informing him of her progress. Another states that he will never read the letters and that she should never say thank you or expect any response from him. The play from then on is almost exclusively the characters letters. In her first letter to Mr. Smith which is obviously a fake name, Jerusha acknowledges this and gives him her own name which is Daddy Long Legs. She also asks him questions which she is not supposed to do about how grey his hair is, if he’s bald, if he is old, or old old! As it turns out he’s young, but her assumption is key to the rest of the story. He is Jervis Pendleton played by Chris Paulson. Jervis is intrigued and amused by her sense of humor and her unconventional personality. He is the uncle of one of her classmates and as such meets Jerusha. Through her letters and their personal meetings he begins to care for her. But the fact that he didn’t correct her assumption that he was old, or identify himself as her Daddy Long Legs when they first met, has put him in an awkward position. Her letters are almost like diary entries which include, among other things, her feelings about Jervis Pendleton.
Maddie Olsem and Chris Paulson both seen earlier in the season in Lyric Arts production of Bright Star are the perfect performers for these roles and this venue. Performing basically in the midst of the audience without the usual distance created psychologically as well as physically by the separation of the stage is tricky. Being too close can reveal the artifice in a performance, but there is no loss of contract made creatively between the actors and the audience in this case. This is a skill easily overlooked and noticed more in it’s absence than when it is successful. They also have wonderful voices, Paulson stretches occasionally to reach the higher registers, but 95% of the role seems to be right in his sweet spot. Olsem sets the tone for the show as she opens it and right away I was impressed with her voice. The quality of the sound, and as I mentioned earlier, the clarity of their singing. Too many shows we become resigned to missing some of the lyrics no matter what level of production it is. A few hours before attending this performance I was at the Ordway for Once On This Island, which was a fun show, and much like this I was very close, seated on the stage with the actors all around me. It was everything a national touring production can be, an elaborate set, great costumes, special effects, and powerful performers. What it lacked, as many of those larger shows do, is the loss of clarity. You miss lyrics, but you accept it. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to accept that with this show. The musicians are really tight and don’t overpower the performers. Minneapolis Musical Theatre is rapidly becoming one of my favorite theatre companies, their production of Be More Chill last spring was one of the highlights of last season, and I regret missing their fall offering Night of the Living Dead: The Musical.
Daddy Long Legs plays at the James J. Hill House through February 29th, for more information and purchase tickets go to http://www.aboutmmt.org/