Conejo Players stands tall with warm, melodic musical

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘Daddy Long Legs’

CONNECTION—Lilly Babb and Jared Price in “Daddy Long Legs.” Courtesy of Mike McCauley

CONNECTION—Lilly Babb and Jared Price in “Daddy Long Legs.” Courtesy of Mike McCauley

During the pandemic, instead of going dark, the intrepid Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks has gone to great lengths to find shows that could be staged using a minimal number of actors and crew, shows that might not otherwise be seen.

The latest is “Daddy Long Legs,” a charming two-person musical with warmth and heart that expresses the importance of human connection to a world that has been forced to avoid it for over a year. The show, starring Lilli Babb and Jared Price, was streamed online May 21 to 23 for three performances.

Developed as part of the Ann Deal/Fashion Forms Plays-In- Progress series at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, “Daddy Long Legs” made its debut in 2009 and has since been seen in theaters around the world, from off-Broadway to Tokyo, Canada and the West End in London, a testament to the universality of its appeal.

The musical is based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster, which was adapted for the stage by John Caird with songs written by Paul Gordon. The story takes place in 1908, as college-bound orphan Jerusha Abbott is presented with an unusual offer from a mysterious benefactor known only as Mr. Smith, a trustee of the orphanage where she lives.

She is to receive full tuition and living expenses to attend Ferguson College to study writing under the condition that she writes him monthly reports on her progress, reports that won’t be answered. Dissatisfied with the alias “Mr. Smith,” Jerusha addresses her letters to “Daddy Long Legs,” after the elongated shadow she saw of the figure delivering the offer, illuminated by the headlights of an automobile.

In reality, “Mr. Smith” is Jervis Pendleton, an introverted Manhattan philanthropist who is charmed by Jerusha’s letters but adheres to his strict rule about not responding to her. Caird’s play is chiefly epistolary, with the two characters reading lines from Jerusha’s one-way correspondence.

Over the course of the play, Jerusha grows from a naive college freshman (expressed in the song “Things I Didn’t Know”) to an assertive, self-confident, self-proclaimed socialist and suffragette who promotes women’s rights.

Pendleton, on the other hand, falls in love with Jerusha and becomes bitter, jealous and controlling, fueled by his desire to meet her in person but unable to do so due to his own terms. His desire finally getting the better of him, he passes himself off as the uncle of Jerusha’s best friend and comes to the college where they become friends, without him revealing his true identity.

Composer Paul Gordon’s more than two- dozen songs generally blur into one another. They’re warm and melodic musings, with a few standouts: the duet “Like Other Girls” and Jerusha’s splendid solo, “The Secret of Happiness.” We could listen to Babb sing them all day long. Her melodious soprano is like a ray of sunshine—clear, radiant and warm. Her understanding of her character brings Jerusha alive, especially with her almost desperate curiosity about “Mr. Smith’s” age, look and personality.

Jared Price is well-suited for his portrayal of Jervis. Price’s tenor is best in its upper range but his performance perfectly captures the self-conflicted frustration Jervis feels as he is tormented by his growing affection for Jerusha through her letters, yet is unable to express it. The two are simply wonderful together.

Director Dan Marley-Kolb assembled a small crew that effectively brought the musical to life. David Fraley led the exceptional three-piece orchestra, playing keyboards along with Pam de Almeida on cello and Max Tomack on guitar.

Rick Steinberg’s set features Jervis’ book-lined study and Jerusha’s spartan college dorm room, whose twin bookcases gradually become loaded with books from her studies, gifts from Jervis and mementos from her college years.