Theatre Raleigh‘s stellar production of Daddy Long Legs stars Hilary Maiberger and Max Chernin
In 1912, a novel by the name of Daddy-Long-Legs became popular among young readers. And, now, over 100 years later and adapted into a stage musical by Paul Gordon, it’s still easy to see why. The two main characters, a young girl named Jerusha Abbot and a slightly older man named Jervis are so delightfully and endearingly written, as is their sweet story, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.
And “falling in love” is exactly what one does at Theatre Raleigh’s production of this fanciful musical. Directed by Megan McGinnis, who just happened to originate the role of Jerusha, and starring two strong leads, this lovely tale plays out on a beautiful wood-paneled set designed by Chris Bernier.
Daddy Long Legs stars Max Chernin as Jerusha Abbott’s benefactor Jervis Pendleton, a.k.a. "Mr. Smith"
This set, lit by rustic lanterns and filled with books, functions as the orphanage where Jerusha (Hilary Maiberger), when the audience first meets her, serves as “the oldest orphan in the John Grier home.” Later, when a mysterious benefactor- none other than Jervis (Max Chernin) himself- chooses to pay discreetly for Jerusha’s college education in exchange for monthly letters from the young girl, it doubles both as Jerusha’s school and Jervis’ study.
Having only one backdrop may seem an odd choice, but here, in the intimate space of the Kennedy Theatre, it works quite well. It’s a simple, effective choice that keeps the focus on this show, its beautiful music, and its strong characters throughout.
In fact, the simplicity of the production is its strongest feature. While today’s audiences are used to overpowering dance numbers with dozens of actors belting out complicated songs, this story and this production are simple, clean, and unfettered. It is not until one sees a show like this one- one where every note runs clear- and where story and written word are the main focus that one realizes just how refreshing such a production is.
Speaking of refreshing, this sweet, lightly funny script fits that description well. As Jerusha writes to Jervis, who has a growing fondness for her, she imagines him as much older and knows him only as “Daddy-Long-Legs.” Jervis eventually does introduce himself to her…as a friend’s uncle…and without letting her know that he is her shrouded benefactor. In this regard, the story is a bit like an old-fashioned “Catfish” without the ill intent, though it plays out more like a fairy tale.
Daddy Long Legs stars Hilary Maiberger as Jerusha Abbott, "the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home"
The script and the story are brought fully to life by the clear, catchy music and the beautiful voices and portrayals of the actors. Bright-eyed Maiberger’s sweet, strong voice, as well as the energy and spunk with which she plays Jerusha make her perfectly cast. Also well-cast is Chernin, who gives his character just the right amount of awkwardness to make him real. Chernin also does a particularly good job with the script’s funnier moments and isn’t afraid to get physical to make a point. Watching him slam down his typewriter or visibly sizzle with jealousy provides some of the production’s funniest moments. It also doesn’t hurt that the two actors share an easy, natural chemistry.
The story moves quickly, gliding from one song to the next, all the way to the tense but rewarding ending. Standout songs include “The Secret of Happiness” and “Like Other Girls,” which effectively turns Jerusha into one of the most real and relatable characters imaginable. It also has to be noted that, while some have criticized the novel as “anti-feminist,” the musical is anything but. Jerusha shines through here as a strong, empowered woman. In fact, she’s rather inspiring throughout. She’s also very well-dressed thanks to lovely costumes by Sheila Cox. And, honestly, what more could one want in a heroine than to be both inspiring and fashionable?
Viewers looking for a female role model or anyone who longs to get lost in a love story will find exactly what they’re looking for here, as will just about anyone.
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