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Pent-up frustration, then relief for lovers, audience at RMTC

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When the inevitable takes place at the conclusion of the romantic musical Daddy Long Legs, a male voice in the dark can be heard to impatiently utter "Thank God."

The intrusive commentary, which still elicited chuckles from the preview audience at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Wednesday night, punctuated an evening of longing for both the unlikely lovers on stage and those watching. There is never much doubt to the will-they-or-won't-they question, thrilling patrons beguiled for more than two hours by the throwback feel-good story while frustrating the more demanding who could predict the happy-ever-after conclusion 15 minutes in.

Daddy Long Legs is based on a century-old Jean Webster coming-of-age book that follows the fortune of a foundling young woman, the oldest in her orphanage, and the anonymous wealthy trustee who sees her potential as a writer and offers to pay for her college education. The main caveat is that she must pen him, whom she must address as John Smith, a monthly letter detailing her progress.

Much of the modest John Caird (librettist and director)-Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) collaboration involves her letters being sung.

To the outside world, Jerusha Abbot has nothing -- even her names were borrowed from a tombstone and the first page of the phonebook. She is thrilled with her mysterious benefactor's charity but mostly that someone took interest in her for the first time. She immediately begins to charm with her impetuous missives full of wit, wondering whether to address her sugar daddy with his unconvincing name or something equally unaffectionate like "dear hitching post." Her insatiable curiosity has her guessing he could be the tall, gangly man she fleetingly noticed exiting the orphanage, and dubs him Daddy Long Legs.

She presumes that her patron is a man of advanced years and repeatedly attempts to get an answer to her written inquiries but he is unresponsive. The audience gets to see that he is youngish bachelor Jervis Pendleton, the motherless philanthropist who happens to be the uncle of Jerusha's college classmate. On David Faley's handsome set she roams the trunk-filled stage, signifying that this is a women on the move, while he sits in his raised, book-lined office reading her letters with increasing interest.

The main pleasure of Daddy Long Legs, especially in the first act, is watching the blossoming of Jerusha from insecure girl to self-assured charmer. It's hard not to fall for this bright, increasingly confident underdog. The audience quickly succumbs and so does Jervis. Jerusha's allure draws him out to meet but as himself, not John Smith. He is elated to learn from her letters of the romantic spark between them, but guilt-ridden over his outrageous breach of trust that sets up the real conflict of the show. How that remedies itself is the subject of the less satisfying and static final act.

Megan McGinnis is simply fabulous as the fresh, plucky protege soon to become admirable suffragist. She carries Daddy Long Legs with a sweetness that is never cloying and a voice that thrills. As Jervis, the competent Robert Adelman Hancock wears his character's emotions, from smitten to jealousy to self-reproach, on his sleeve. They make a lovely couple but not an ideal musical match as his voice struggles to reach high notes.

Webster's rags-to-riches story was aimed at young adults in 1912, advocating for women's education at a time when relatively few went to school past 14 or 15. Caird's book fleshes out Jervis and how his charitable act builds a wall of gratitude that can't be climbed from either side. Gordon's music is serviceable and pleasant but unmemorable. A rare bonus is that all the lyrics can be heard over the proficient playing of a seven-member orchestra in front of the stage.

The simplicity of the old-fashioned plot, where everyone has honourable intentions -- not like today where online predators lure unsuspecting young girls with dodgy emails -- may come across as quaint with little ambition as to do more than comfort. The frustrating lack of live interaction between the characters eventually robs Daddy Long Legs of momentum, causing the odd outburst from disappointed viewers.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Theatre Review

Daddy Long Legs

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

To April 6

Tickets: $29-$68.50 at 204-942-6537

Three and a half stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 D5

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