By Martin F. Kohn
Who doesn’t love a tale about a plucky orphan prevailing? Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables, Homer Wells (John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules”) – each the hero of a popular book, not to mention a movie, a musical and/or a stage play. They had tough childhoods, but for every one of them the sun came out tomorrow.
So it goes for Jerusha Abbott, heroine of “Daddy Long Legs,” the newish two-actor musical based on Jean Webster’s oft-filmed 1912 novel about a young woman and the mysterious benefactor who pays for her college education, the man she calls Daddy Long Legs because she has never seen him, only his elongated shadow.
Written and directed by John Caird (co-director of “Les Miserables”), “Daddy Long Legs” is something of an orphan itself. Born in 2009, it has played in California, Ohio, Illinois and now Michigan as it hopes, according to its publicity, for a home on Broadway.
Broadway seems unlikely for a little musical with only two actors and a score (by Paul Gordon) that advances the story but is short on enticing melodies or memorable lyrics. Still, if Oliver, Anne, Homer and Jerusha have taught us anything, it’s to never bet against a plucky orphan.
And “Daddy Long Legs” is such a cuddly kitten of a show that one wants it to succeed. (Set your sights on off-Broadway, Daddy.) The story is so appealing that it’s approaching 100 years of popularity. She’s poor and lonely; he’s rich and lonely; she’s an aspiring writer; he’s a voracious reader; he’s a lot younger than she thinks. You see where this is going.
The two performers, Christy Altomare and Kevin Earley, are terrific. The plot covers four years, from Jerusha’s last days at the John Grier Home for Orphans through her college graduation. Jerusha grows to full adulthood, a transition Altomare plays so subtly that you don’t realize it as it’s happening.
Jervis, the man Jerusha calls Daddy Long Legs, experiences a different kind of growth, a kind of emotional thaw as he understands he’ll have to open up to escape his life of loneliness. Earley handles the transition with delicacy. Both actors have glorious voices and harmonize with particular precision.
Well-suited to family audiences, “Daddy Long Legs’ ought to appeal to the same pre- and early teen girls who’ve made “Wicked” such a hit wherever it plays.
‘Daddy Long Legs’
The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison St., Detroit. Wednesday-Sunday through Nov. 20. $34.50-44.50. 313-963-9800. http://www.gemtheatre.com