'Daddy Long Legs' delights in Sarasota

mclear@bradenton.comMarch 16, 2014 

Kevin Earley and Penny McNamee star in "Daddy Long Legs" at Florida Studio Theatre. Brian Braun/publicity photo

Jean Webster's novel "Daddy-Long-Legs" is more than a century old, and it's been adapted into films at least five times. Not too many stories are more familiar.

Still, the recent stage musical by John Caird and Paul Gordon turns out to be a wonderful surprise, even a revelation. It finds a sophistication that's missing from Fred Astaire-Leslie Caron version, and certainly from the Shirley Temple version, which was titled "Curly Top," and from the novel, which was aimed at teenage girls.

The current production at Florida Studio Theater, directed by Caird, is beautifully staged and stunningly performed by its two-person cast, Penny McNamee and Kevin Earley.

McNamee plays a college-aged orphan in the early years of the 20th century. She has spent her life in an orphanage. One day she receives a letter saying that an anonymous benefactor will pay for her to go to college. The only conditions are that she write him a letter once a month. She's not allowed to thank him or ask his name.

Instead of the businesslike correspondence the benefactor expects, the girl writes effervescent letters about her wonderful new life. She thanks him profusely and constantly asks to meet him. She calls him "Daddy Long Legs" -- the title of the musical omits the novel's hyphens -- and imagines him to be in his '80s.

He's actually much younger, and of course falls in love with her through her letters. He contrives to meet her, but disguises his identity.

Farfetched? Absolutely. But this stage version is so enchanting that the implausibility of the story will bother virtually no one who experiences this show.

Among the show's many treasures are the unusual and effective songs with music and lyrics by Gordon. There's a pronounced lack of show-stoppers; all the songs are down-tempo, with no bridges, and in most cases no traditional verses or choruses. The melodies are understated, even unmemorable. But still, most of the songs touch the soul.

They're played exquisitely by an offstage four-person band (keyboard, drums, violin and cello, under music director Corrine Aquilina). Both the actors wield lovely voices in addition to their fine acting skills, though McNamee was clearly the audience's favorite.

The production at FST's Gompertz Theatre actually starts to impress even before the actors step on stage, thanks to the gorgeous set by David Farley, the decor of the benefactor's luxurious study in deep and rich-looking wood.

The action of the play takes place over several years, and unfolds largely though letters written between the two characters. Lighting designers Paul Toben and Cory Pattak keep us posted on the passage of time with a pretty little trick -- an invisible hand writing each letter's date across the set in lights.

At the show's end, the audience, men and women alike, quickly dabbed away tears in time to give the actors a standing ovation.

Lobby conversations indicated that some audience members expected they would be seeing something along the lines of the 1955 film, a frothy romance with Johnny Mercer songs including "Something's Gotta Give." They were pleasantly surprised by what they experiences instead.

"There was a movie of that with Leslie Caron," one man said to his wife, "but it was nothing like this."

Details: Through April 5 at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $18-$36. Call 941-366-9000 or www. floridastudiotheatre.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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