Saturday, December 10, 2016

He's With Her

Many audiences are unaware of how a simple change by a designer or dramaturg can alter their dramatic experience. Prior to his death from AIDS on May 13, 1993, my friend Scott Heumann was employed as the dramaturg for Houston Grand Opera. The public was primarily exposed to Scott's work through his program notes, translations for the Supertitles used in many HGO productions, and lectures about upcoming operas.

Scott's immense knowledge of operatic history, his acute ear for voices, his background as a musicologist, and his creativity helped to refine the artistic vision behind many of HGO's most successful productions. The company's March 1984 staging of Simon Boccanegra offered a prime example of what a difference an alert dramaturg can make.

Before opera companies adopted the use of Supertitles, Verdi's opera could be extremely confusing for audiences that had not read the synopsis (or had forgotten what it said). With the new technology at his disposal, Scott decided to flash a title above the proscenium during the brief pause between the opera's Prologue and Act I. Although the title consisted of only three words ("25 Years Later"), it made an astonishing change in the audience's understanding of Francesco Maria Piave's libretto.

In 2010, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley participated in a rolling world premiere of a new musical entitled Daddy Long Legs. With music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book by John Caird (who also directed the production), the opening night performance scored a solid hit with the audience at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, which rose to their feet in a standing ovation that (unlike so many others) was entirely spontaneous, genuine, and well deserved. Over the years, I've attended numerous world premieres of opera/music theatre pieces. However, I cannot recall a single one that demonstrated such craft, intelligence, and resonated so thoroughly and immediately with the audience at its premiere.

Hilary Maiberger as Jerusha Abbott in Daddy Long Legs
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Daddy Long Legs was a co-production between three regional theatre companies: the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura California, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. An incredibly economical show to produce, it requires only one set, two actors, six musicians, and a handful of easily rentable costumes. As its director, John Caird, explained:
"Musicals can get endlessly stalled waiting to get to Broadway. It would be better for all concerned to be less greedy. Other theatres have expressed interest and I'd rather have a hundred successful regional productions than one successful one on Broadway. I want lots of people to see it."
Inspired by Jean Webster's 1912 epistolary novel comprised solely of a young woman's letters to the mysterious philanthropist who found her in an orphanage and underwrote her college education, the musical's creative team broadened the scope of the drama to show how charity affects not just the recipient, but also the donor. Instead of a one-way dramatic thread as young Jerusha Abbott writes to the mysterious man whom she imagines to be old, bald, and grey, the audience also witnesses the awakening of Jervis Pendleton's soul as he starts to fall in love with Jerusha through the power of her letters.

Hilary Maiberger and Derek Carley in a scene
from Daddy Long Legs (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With much of its score through-composed, there is very little spoken dialogue in Daddy Long Legs. This two-character show struck me as one of the most charming -- and organically cohesive -- romantic musicals to hit the stage since 1963's She Loves Me. In an age when texting has become the primary form of written communication for young girls, it's refreshing to see how much a person can express and reveal about herself through old-fashioned correspondence.

While most new musicals undergo a perilous path to fame, Daddy Long Legs immediately connected with audiences -- and has kept doing so in astonishing ways. When it finally reached New York, Daddy Long Legs racked up 309 performances at off-Broadway’s Davenport Theatre and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical. On December 10, 2015, it became the first show ever to be live-streamed from a Broadway or off-Broadway theatre. With three rebroadcasts during a 24-hour time span, the New York production of Daddy Long Legs was watched by more than 150,000 people in 135 countries.

As a result of its great success with audiences, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley decided to revive Daddy Long Legs and make it their end-of-year holiday show for 2016. David Farley's unit set for the original 2009 production of Daddy Long Legs featured two sharply angled walls of bookcases upstage of the main playing area. In the course of moving from the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts to the smaller, 400-seat Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, the company had a golden opportunity to rethink key aspects of the production's design.

David Farley's unit set for the original 2009 production of Daddy Long Legs

One particular change in the set design allowed TheatreWorks Silicon Valley to give Daddy Long Legs an almost cinematic ambiance. Instead of having the two walls of books in Jervis's study angled toward a point upstage, designer Joe Ragey eliminated the angulation in favor of a large multi-paneled window behind which he projected a variety of American impressionist paintings representing locations mentioned in Jerusha's letters.

Hilary Maiberger and Derek Carley in a scene
from Daddy Long Legs (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

From the Ivy League liberal arts college where Jerusha was studying to the farm where she spent several summers; from the view outside Jervis Pendleton's apartment overlooking Columbus Circle to a beautiful sunset seen from a rural hilltop, the cumulative effect was magical.

Derek Carley and Hilary Maiberger in a scene
from Daddy Long Legs (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What I find most interesting about Daddy Long Legs is the obvious level of craft surrounding the project. This is a lean, keen show from which audiences can glean a great deal of emotional satisfaction. With Hilary Maiberger as the spirited Jerusha and Derek Carley as the handsome but emotionally insecure Jervis, many scenes is astonishing for their fluidity, forward propulsion, and depth of emotion.

Moments of joy, confusion, heartbreak, and bewilderment are clearly communicated to the audience through Paul Gordon's accessible and remarkably sensitive music and lyrics. While songs such as "The Secret of Happiness," "What Does She Mean By Love?" "The Color of Your Eyes," "I Have Torn You From My Heart," and "I Couldn't Know Someone Less" are beautifully constructed, it is Jervis's surprisingly introspective Act II solo, "Charity," that is the highlight and, in many respects, the turning point of the evening.

The 2016 revival has been lovingly directed by Robert Kelley, who notes that:
Daddy Long Legs is an exhilarating love song, a turn-of-the-last century journey to a world of great wealth and grave poverty, rigid class distinctions, and self-satisfied men in power confronted by dissatisfied women at the gates. From the dark corridors of an upstate orphanage to an Ivy League women’s college, and eventually to the glittering lights and newfangled motorcars crowding Manhattan, you will soon feel the excitement and promise of America in a time of change. Here, you’ll meet one of the brightest and most charming heroines to ever grace either novel or stage, revealed entirely in her own letters.”
Hilary Maiberger and Derek Carley in a scene
from Daddy Long Legs (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“How to explain this exceptional response to a chamber musical made up entirely of letters written over a century ago? Start with an enthralling, spirited, and brilliant heroine who comes of age before our eyes, intellectually, socially, and romantically.  Add John Caird’s flowing adaptation, which brings an isolated and withdrawn Jervis to life in ways unimagined in the original novel. Weave in Paul Gordon’s engaging, romantic score and evocative, amusing lyrics. And finally realize that its underlying themes -- honesty vs. deception, loneliness vs. love, the meaning of charity, and the undervalued potential of women -- are as relevant today as they were a century past. Inspired by a charismatic new cast, an intimate theatre, and a beloved team of TheatreWorks designers, it is a pleasure to meet Daddy Long Legs all over again."
Hilary Maiberger and Derek Carley in a scene
from Daddy Long Legs (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Daddy Long Legs continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through December 31 (click here for tickets).

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