In the perfect Broadway musical world, voice become character. Who can ever imagine cleaver-wielding Mrs. Lovett of Sweeney Todd and not picture Angela Lansbury? Or stage mother-deluxe Mama Rose of Gypsy and not be blasted by volcanic Ethel Merman? Or Evita without Patti LuPone? Definitive voices make definitive characters.
As of now, there's a distinct voice at Main Street Theater that defines and clarifies. It belongs to Shanae'a Moore as orphan Jerusha Abbott in Paul Gordon and John Caird's Daddy Long Legs (2009; off Broadway premiere, 2015). Her voice is sweet and pure with the ping of fine crystal. Secure and controlled, it says that Jerusha is young, full of quicksilver, intelligent, curious, and very much able to find her own way in the world. Jerusha needs a voice like Moore's because, without her lilting timbre and steely resolve, this two-character musical would endlessly spin away into pastel nothingness.
The other voice belongs to Matt Harris Andersen, and his plangent tenor is more than sufficient to depict Jervis Pendleton, Jerusha's anonymous benefactor and guardian angel, who naturally falls in love with her – as she does with him – from afar. She thinks he's old, tall, probably bald, but he's nothing of the sort, being young, robust, socially awkward and rich as Croesus. It's all very turn-of-last-century romantic.
As stipulated in their contract, unknown “Mr. Smith” who has seen evidence of her budding talent, will finance her college education if she writes him letters detailing her life. He will never answer nor meet her. As years pass, her feisty independence bristles at his passive-aggressive control over where she must spend the summer holidays or with whom she might share them. Already smitten and jealous over her attentions to a rich college boy, Jervis then steps into her life as Smith's secretary. He will not divulge his identity even when she rebuffs his advances, which, this being 1912, amounts to hand holding, a fireside picnic, and a chaste romp in New York City. She's fallen for her benefactor, and no one else will suffice. What's a fellow to do when he's incognito and in love?
Based on Jean Webster's 1912 gilded-age novel, which in turn was unrecognizable inspiration for a Shirley Temple vehicle (Bright Eyes, 1934) and Fred Astaire's creepy sugar-daddy version (Daddy Long Legs, 1955), you will have to see this handsome production from Main Street to find out. And it takes two long hours to do so.
The trouble lies in the show's implacable form: it's all letters. Almost all of them from Jerusha to Mr. Smith. This leaves Mr. Smith with little to do dramatically except quote them, when Jerusha isn't dictating them. Sometimes both of them sing the missives together. This can be quite dull as you can imagine, especially when Gordon's palette is awash in nouveau Broadway song writing: palm court orchestration (piano, cello, guitar), Sondheim-lite garden party muzak, and meandering tunes that sound exactly like the former meandering tunes.
The soft, gentle songs define what's happening, but hardly ever delve into why. Everything's awfully generic – “The Color of His Eyes,” “Sophomore Year Studies,” “Graduation Day,” “The Secret of Happiness.” This entire musical is a sampler, one nattily stitched and gorgeously framed, but a sampler, nonetheless. The big conflict is when will Jervis reveal himself as Jervis? We have to wait the entire musical for the breathless denouement, which is neatly resolved in the final song, “All This Time.” It's all so genteel.
The opening night audience seemed genuinely moved by this mail order musical. I apparently missed the finer points of unrequited love and the noble job of postal delivery. However, you won't see a finer looking production, nor one so smoothly mounted. Director Andrew Ruthven, who has a sleek and steady guiding hand, lets the musical breathe without overstating, which is hard to accomplish since this show is so understated and sleepy to begin with. The performances are lovely, matched by set designer Liz Freese's immense mahogany bookcase that seems lifted entirely from the Frick mansion, Macy Lyne's period-perfect costumes of mutton sleeves, shirtwaists, and wool checked pants, and J. Mitchell Cronin's gaslit ambiance. It's a Gibson girl's dream.
For all of Jerusha's Fabian stirrings, suffragette sympathies, and inevitable successful career, she settles for marriage. The little orphan makes good, for sure, with the rich husband who loves her. There's a song for that, and, no doubt, another letter.
Daddy Long Legs continues through June 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m .Wednesday, June 6 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com $36-$45. No performance on May 30.