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