By Keith Loria
Although George Street Playhouse isn’t presenting typical holiday fare at its this year, Michael Mastro, the theater’s resident artistic director, is directing a show that he says offers the same heartwarming feeling of such a show — the musical romance, “Daddy Long Legs.”
”Even though it might not be a Christmas story, it’s a great story to warm your heart,” Mr. Mastro says “Daddy Long Legs,” which is running at the New Brunswick theater, Nov. 29 to Dec. 24. “It’s a perfect show for this time of year.”
Based on a 1912 young adult novel by Jean Webster (the great niece of Mark Twain), with book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, the story follows Jerusha, a winsome young woman whose wishes are answered when an anonymous gentleman she nicknames Daddy Long Legs gives her the opportunity to leave her orphanage and attend university. As payment in kind, she shares her life with her unknown benefactor through treasured letters as she grows into an intelligent and independent woman and experiences a budding romance with a young suitor.
”The story takes place from 1908 to 1912, and when it begins, Jerusha turns 18 and can’t live in the orphanage anymore,” Mr. Mastro says. “One of the benefactors of the orphanage, who remains anonymous, decides he wants to send her to college. The benefactor has rules. She’s not to ask who he is, she’s never to say ‘thank you’ and he wants her to write letters to him, though he will never respond to her.”
Elise Vannerson plays Jerusha, a role she was excited to get, citing the character’s strength and belief in the good around her. She say that was one of the main reasons she wanted the part.
”The show is really very comforting with everything going on in America right now,” she says. “It touches on a lot of really beautiful and current issues in an amazing way. It’s really uplifting and encouraging.”
As the man known as Daddy Long Legs, Ben Michael’s character Jervis is well-off and wants to do good. He has previously sent two others through college who he felt showed a talent in writing.
”He decides that this time he will choose a girl. He notices an essay Jerusha has written at her school and picks her,” Mr. Michael says. “He’s very much the black sheep of his family and is uncomfortable around them, so he has distanced himself from them, and the world around him.”
The musical allows the audience to escape a little bit and get caught up in a charming love story between these two very likeable characters.
”It’s nice to be able to do a romance, especially at this time of year, when you can give people a chance to get away from all the craziness,” Mr. Michael says. “The music is beautiful and touching, and once it starts playing, it kind of cuts through your soul. The emotions are very clear and strong and present.”
Ms. Vannerson and Mr. Michael had never met before this production, but both performers say developing chemistry was easy.
”Ben walked into the first day of rehearsal with this air about him and we set down for the meet-and-greet, and I felt he came in with 200 percent, ready to go, and we joke and laugh and are having so much fun,” Ms. Vannerson says. “To find that in a partner in a production is such a blessing.”
Mr. Mastro says the show appeals to him because he’s a fan of literature from that time period.
”I read ‘Little Women’ when I was a kid and I was very moved by that book, and there’s something about young people growing up, the end of their innocence and seeing the world through adult eyes that has always been interesting to me,” he says. “This story is lovely and sweet and warm without being over the top.”
He also is a big fan of the music, which he notes doesn’t sound like it’s from 1908.
”It has a more contemporary theatrical feel to it although it’s not pop, and it works and doesn’t take you out of the period,” Mr. Mastro says. “The music adds an emotional depth to the story that makes it even deeper.”
“Daddy Long Legs” will be performed at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, Nov. 29 through Dec. 24. For tickets and information, go to gsponline.org or call 732-246-7717.
By Keith Loria