Fire-Breathers and Criticism: Daddy Long Legs Rules at the Davenport Theatre

“Isn’t it terrific?” I gushed at intermission during a performance of Daddy Long Legs at Manhattan’s Davenport Theatre.

“No less than a creative masterpiece”

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“I wouldn’t say that,” the man next to me replied. I thought he was going to be funny and try to find some other superlative. Instead he continued, “the singing is very nice, but other than that ….” He shrugged his shoulders and wrinkled his nose as if he’d caught the scent of bad fish.

Astounded, I kept thinking about his lack of enthusiasm as I went to wait on  the interminable lady’s room line. I knew I’d try to get more out of him. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to be combative, or even trying to change his mind, I just wanted to know why.

Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan in DADDY LONG LEGS

When I approached him, he rolled his eyes and said, “Can you honestly say that’s the best thing you’ve ever seen? I wouldn’t use the word ‘terrific’ for anything less.”

To my mind, what we’d just seen was no less than a creative masterpiece. Based on the 1911 novel of the same name by Mark Twain’s niece, Jean Webster, John Caird’s witty dialogue and Paul Gordon’s music and lyrics succinctly trimmed a novel — which spanned more than four years, multiple locations, and covered topics as diverse as the treatment of orphans, the education of girls, suffrage for women, and socialism — down to two characters, and 120 minutes, without missing a beat. Megan McGinnis in DADDY LONG LEGS

Paul Alexander Nolan in DADDY LONG LEGS

Further, the performances of Megan McGinnis as the orphan sent to college and Paul Alexander Nolan as the crotchety, anonymous benefactor were flawless.

Their singing was exceptional, their love story poignant, and even though only one kiss was shared at the very end, their chemistry was apparent from their first moments on stage. This is in stark contrast to Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s film version, which although delightful, left the viewer in doubt of actual attraction between the protagonists.

Like Clare Booth Luce’s Pulitzer winning play, The Women,the creators and actors of Daddy Long Legs were able to conjure an unseen cast with a few words of dialogue and the notes of an excellent score. (Click HERE to hear some of the songs.)

Paul Alexander Nolan and Megan McGinnis in DADDY LONG LEGS

Special kudos also go out to  David Farley whose imaginative and detailed set and quick-change costuming outdid many Broadway musicals this season.

At its heart, Daddy Long Legs is about a relationship between a man and a woman overcoming the barriers of social inequality to find a way to continue together. I wondered if the romantic plot might be the reason why the man at the theater felt so differently than I did.

It reminded me of the times when I gave a book a five star rating and was amazed to see others score it a one or a two. To make matters worse, when I had questioned the man a second time, he’d made some nasty comments about my taste and the fact my husband wasn’t with me — raising his arm to indicating my hubby must be off in a corner drinking. I realized this guy wouldn’t be content to low rate a book or play, he’d be the anonymous critic who’d bash the author and leave them cringing in a corner, possibly never to write again.

It also gave me courage.

Too often we don’t see or hear the applause, but only the negative criticism. We allow the crazies to color our own opinions of ourselves and our work. This extends to other reviewers who are oft times too cowed to express a different opinion in view of a fire-breather’s ultra-confident scorching.

Paul Alexander Nolan in DADDY LONG LEGS

But thankfully, theater is different than publishing. At the end of the performance, Daddy Long Legs received a standing ovation from men and women alike. The fire-breather was definitely in the minority and the vast majority of the audience saw the brilliance and hard work of an incredible cast.

The charming and intimate Davenport Theater is about a block from the traditional Broadway theaters. While this show is aimed at adults, it is definitely suitable for children age eight and up, particularly for fans of Anne of Green Gables or the American Girl dolls and books.I wonder how long before theater producers realize a Jerusha doll would be a big seller. If they ever make one, I’ll be the first in line.

Unfortunately, the author of Daddy Long Legs, Jean Webster died in childbirth a few years after her novel was published. I think it wonderful that her work is being brought to a whole new generation and am sure she would be pleased with this delightful production.

Click here for more information on Daddy Long Legs.

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

King Charles III a Resolute Failure

NB: This begins a series of theater reviews — some a day trip from D.C. in New York and others as far as Chicago. There is so much to see and do — I hope my readers get out there and enjoy!

Broadway’s Music Box Theater is a place of great fondness for me. It was the site of the first play I ever saw, plus countless others that I have loved.  Opening nights are exciting: Waiting on line, the crowd filing in, the sound of taxicabs fading to that of an orchestra as it tunes. Unfortunately, the production of King Charles III that officially opened on November 1st,  will not join those treasured memories.

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The idea of of a futuristic play about the Royal Family seemed so delightfully absurd, I couldn’t wait to see this play and was lucky enough to get in during previews. Most people adore the Royals — perhaps it’s the result of too many Disney Princess stories — but whether following their births and celebrations, or making them the butt of jokes, I think their squabbles and predicaments both fascinating  and ridiculous. They are worthy of soap opera fame, yet rarified, dignified, and interesting. With tremendous curiosity, I went to see Mike Bartlett’s Olivier-winning play.

King Charles III should abdicate before audiences rise like a revolutionary mob and demand its execution.

The characters were so insipid, they were worse than two-dimensional, cardboard figures. The actors seem chosen more for their physical similarities to their subjects rather than real talent. Charles is portrayed as a vacillating monarch, unable to shed tears at his mother’s death, who refuses to sign into law a bill he opposes — the one bright spot in the tedious plot. He is manipulated  by politicians and his wife, Camila, who is reduced to a flighty idiot, seeking the glory of his office, who scarcely listens to his misgivings.

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Kate is portrayed as a woman who oversteps her position and threatens her husband for the benefit of her children. Somehow she doesn’t know that the King is the King as soon as the previous monarch dies. She goes on and on about how he won’t be coronated for three months. Even as Americans we all know the coronation is a formalization, a ceremony, and the office of monarch never goes vacant. (Remember all those movies — the King is dead, long live the King?)

The anti-monarchist sentiment of the play is brought to the forefront as Prince Harry, portrayed as a drunken, boorish, wild-child (never mentioning him as a military officer), becomes enamored of a loud-mouthed girl. She denounces everything he is, prompting him to surrender his title. Once again raising the issue of whether or not Harry is truly Charles’ son is not only hackneyed but cruel.

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Add to this the oddest, most annoying ghost of the late Princess Diana, moaning, striking poses, and sauntering up and down the aisles for no apparent reason, and you can see how difficult it is to like even one thing about this play.

The set lacks imagination and consists of a gray stone wall that hints at the interior of a castle. Never mind that Buckingham Palace has plaster walls and gilt finishes, this set design is both boring and lazy.

I was intrigued by the notion that this would be an alternate future play where there wouldn’t be Hitlers, or robots, or scenes of mass destruction. But from the horrid acting, to the over-written dialogue that aims at Shakespearian iambic pentameter and casts poor Kate as another Lady Macbeth, this play is truly a disaster.

Besides Macbeth, there are shades of Hamlet, Henry IV and even Richard III. While anyone who would attempt such a thing would normally be roundly smacked — especially as bad as this play is — the subject matter of the play is so controversial, so popularly anti-monarchist, that critics have been swept away by ephemera instead of calling a dud a dud. The tepid applause of the audience should be the first indication that no amount of highbrow allusion can pull the wool over a New York theater audience’s eyes.