Arizona Theatre Company's Daddy Long Legs is a Perfect Play

Post-holiday blahs are so 2011. Look at the January calendar! So many interesting plays to see. Some of them are bound to take you by surprise.

For example, learning that there's a two-character musical based on the 1912 novel that inspired the Fred Astaire musical Daddy Long Legs was not all that exciting. But it turns out the novel is adorable and clever (and there's a sequel!), and the play, which preserves the original narrator's precocious, intelligent way with words, is enthralling, lovely, and works quite well set to (new) music.

Almost every word is sung. And, as you may recall if you're familiar with the story, it's all told in letters from orphaned Jerusha Abbott to her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (known to her as Mr. John Smith, and dubbed Daddy Long Legs because she saw his shadow once), who don't even meet until the end. Sort of. And they don't dance. What the hell kind of musical is this?

Well, it's a perfect use of raw materials to do what only theater can really do. As many wise people have said, characters sing when they have too much in their hearts for speech. Jerusha's over-the-top youthful enthusiasm belongs in song, and actor Megan McGinnis, who, along with her co-star, Robert Adelman Hancock, has lived with the show for some time now, is a swell Jerusha. Her hooded eyes, delicate Gibson-Girl coiffure, petite frame, and clear, expressive voice combine to exude charm with a fiery energy.

Hancock, while appropriately tall for his role, plays someone who's meant to be more sedate, shy, and mature, as well as socially quite removed from Jerusha, so playwright-director John Caird keeps him in his study on an upstage platform long enough to establish the characters' differences and separation (physical and otherwise). He also has less vocal work to do, but he's definitely an equal partner in the mini-ensemble, reacting just when he should to the remarks Jerusha addresses to him on the page.

Besides creating appropriate and flexible playing areas for the characters, David Farley's set does a lot with what looks like a little. A collection of genuine old traveling trunks forms Jerusha's furnishings in her rooms at college and everywhere else she goes. (They even form a mountain for Jerusha and the secretive Jervis to climb.) As the years pass, her books collect on the floor like bread crumbs from a magical journey. Jervis' own bountiful bookshelves turn transparent when Jerusha's world opens up, literally and figuratively, as education and experiences lead her from childhood to womanhood.

I suppose this is, in a way, the stage equivalent of a chick flick, but how manly, entertainment-wise, is the average piece of theater to begin with? The cool part that might very well appeal to boys and men in general is that Jerusha is an active, venturing hero who takes no crap. She's also pretty funny.

Daddy Long Legs is presented by Arizona Theatre Company through Sunday, January 15, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $10 to $74, click here or call 602-256-6995.

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