On Theater: Long live 'Long Legs' in Laguna

Imagine, for a moment, a musical production consisting of only two people — who only occasionally interconnect during the show and whose discourse consists almost entirely of one-way written communication.

Now imagine it as the most heartwarming, fully realized offering from the Laguna Playhouse in this, its 90th season and you'd have the theater's current production of "Daddy Long Legs."

Playwright-director John Caird adapted this richly involving story from a novel by Mark Twain's grand niece, Jean Webster. Caird is no stranger at turning vintage books into musical theater — 15 years ago he produced "Les Miserables," arguably the greatest Broadway show of all time.

The staging of that production posed enormous difficulties, not the least of which involved constructing a barricade on stage as a backdrop to revolution. But "Daddy Long Legs" carries more subtle requirements which must be overcome by the two performers, each acting primarily on his or her own.

The centerpiece of the show is young Jerusha Abbott, raised in an orphanage and, out of the blue, offered full financing for her college education by a trustee of the institution on several conditions — his identity must remain secret and she must write him monthly informing him of her progress, though he will never reply.

Stepping into this role is the marvelous Megan McGinnis, a Broadway veteran who can easily pass for an ingénue, one of the show's requirements. McGinnis brings a glorious voice to the part as well as a convincing grasp of the character.

Most impressive in the actress' performance is her gradual growth, from an uncultured girl of 17 to a young woman of literary acumen and strong, stubborn opinions upon her graduation. McGinnis enriches the role with her heart-to-heart association with her audience.

As her mysterious patron, Robert Adelman Hancock excels in his background assignment, also rendering an exceptional singing voice. His character — actually the wealthy uncle of one of Jerusha's least favorite classmates — is peeled off layer by layer over the course of the action.

The pair tackle composer Paul Gordon's exquisite melodies with superior dedication, considering the fact that most of the duets are sung some distance from each other. Both performers skillfully draw the audience into their orbit, particularly McGinnis with her ability to establish a sense of intimacy amid empty surroundings.

This isn't the first time that "Daddy Long Legs" has been transformed into a musical — Hollywood turned the trick in the mid-1950s with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. But Caird's stage adaptation, with Gordon's tremendous score, should prove the definitive treatment.

With a splendid unseen orchestra under the baton of Julie McBride, and an atmospheric boost from David Farley's setting and costumes, "Daddy Long Legs" is quite simply the year's finest production at the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Daddy Long Legs"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 600 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday, until Dec. 26 with Sunday performances at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 and 26 and 2 p.m. Thursday matinees Dec. 16 and 23.

Cost: $35 to $70

Call: (949) 494-2787

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