LOWELL - Tony Award-winning director John Caird, best known for his work on such sweeping Broadway fare as “Les Misérables,’’ “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,’’ and “Jane Eyre,’’ now turns his attention to the remarkably intimate new musical “Daddy Long Legs,’’ at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Caird’s production, which he premiered in California in 2009, is complete with original set, costumes, and, most important, actors: the two performers who make up the entire cast.
Adapted from Jean Webster’s 1912 children’s novel, set somewhere in New England, “Daddy Long Legs’’ tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, who in the show’s opening number calls herself “The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home.’’ When an essay the teenager writes catches the eye of Jervis Pendleton, one of the home’s wealthy trustees, he decides to send her to college in the hope that she will pursue a career as a writer. He stipulates that she must detail her progress in a monthly letter to him, but that he will remain anonymous.
Jerusha assumes that her patron is an octogenarian. When she catches a glimpse of him as he exits the home, she sees only his long shadow, and so addresses him in her letters with the nickname “Daddy Long Legs.’’ Of course, her missives are so charming that Jervis falls in love with Jerusha, and his difficulty in revealing his identity and feelings creates the romance’s sweet tension.
The novel has been adapted into a play, a 1952 musical, and several films, including a slightly creepy 1955 version starring a 50-something Fred Astaire and a 20-something Leslie Caron. For this version, Caird, who wrote the show’s book, and composer-lyricist Paul Gordon (“Jane Eyre’’) return to the original, in which “Daddy Long Legs’’ is a young man, played here by the tall and handsome Robert Adelman Hancock.
Like the novel, the musical is told through Jerusha’s one-way correspondence with her anonymous benefactor, but what might appear to be a limiting structure becomes an entire world in the hands of the luminous Megan McGinnis. Not only does she create a believable character who grows from a naïf into an intelligent, independent young woman; she also serves as an enchanting storyteller and singer.
Caird keeps much of the action downstage, amid a collection of trunks McGinnis moves to create a desk, a bed, and even a mountain, while the upstage area is dedicated to Jervis’s well-appointed study. And yet, McGinnis’s endearing performance does not feel constrained by the spare set. We recognize Jerusha’s struggle to fit in, illustrated by the song “Like Other Girls’’; her excitement about learning (“Things I Didn’t Know’’); and her longing to meet her “Daddy Long Legs.’’
Gordon has written some poetic lyrics that offer moments of unexpected wisdom, as in “The Secret of Happiness’’ and “The Man I’ll Never Be.’’ He also creates opportunities for each of the instruments in the six-piece orchestra to shine, although judicious pruning might prevent both acts from sagging a bit under the weight of so many numbers.
But that is a minor quibble. “Daddy Long Legs’’ is a tender romance, and McGinnis makes it impossible to resist.Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.