By Lynn Venhaus
Jennifer Theby-Quinn, one of the most radiant life forces in local theater, joyfully slips into a vivacious literary heroine with energy, enthusiasm and ease in “Daddy Long Legs.”
The charming musical romance opened Insight Theatre Company’s 12th season, whose theme is “A Riot of the Heart!”
Based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, which is a written as a series of letters between pen pals, “Daddy Long Legs” enthralled me as a youth. I naturally identified with orphan Jerusha Abbott, a very smart young woman who longs for adventure.
Because she is a bookworm who shows much promise as a writer, Jerusha is given an opportunity to attend college by an anonymous benefactor, whom she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” after she spies this tall trustee leaving the John Grier Home one day, from a distance. The sole request is that she correspond once a month.
In a plot twist, he befriends her using his real identity, as the bachelor uncle of one of her affluent roommates. The family is of considerable social status, and Jerusha is enamored of their wealth and advantages.
Internationally renowned countertenor Terry Barber plays the mysterious Jervis Pendleton whose zest for life grows as his affection for the wide-eyed innocent coed does. Her lively observations, spoken as her written prose, have enchanted him.
Barber’s vocals are exquisite, and with music direction by Scott Schoonover, the lush score soars. Leading a three-person combo on keyboard, Schoonover benefits from Tracy Andreotti on cello and Vincent Varvel on guitar, guiding each number with expert skill.
While Barber’s acting is less effective here, the show is really is Jennifer’s to own, for it is truly a remarkable role for a leading lady. In Jerusha’s journey of self-discovery, Theby-Quinn shines brightly, lighting up every corner of The Marcelle.
The story takes place in turn-of-the-century New England, and through Theby-Quinn’s animated performance, Jerusha reveals herself as a woman of substance, an outspoken suffragette who champions social justice. As she blossoms, her joie de vivre is palpable and infectious.
Julian King’s vintage costume design is quite fetching, except the wig choice for Jervis.
Director Maggie Ryan keeps the characters moving, and with Quinn’s ebullience, there is no static at all. Rob Lippert’s ingenious set design, rich in detail and smart function, serves the action well.
Nevertheless, the second act seems much longer than necessary, and tests the goodwill of the first one as the two-person show seems in no rush to arrive at the inevitable.
The book is by John Caird, Tony nominee for directing “Les Miserables,” and the music and lyrics are by Paul Gordon, the Tony Award-nominated composer of “Jane Eyre.” The production debuted off-Broadway in 2015, but before that, received an engaging tryout at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012.
For any girl who know what it’s like to dream, this musical marvelously captures the yearning to see the world and the excitement to be introduced to new things in life.
It’s also a quaint portrait of the social mores in the early 20th century, and the evolution of contemporary women.
“Daddy Long Legs” is presented by Insight Theatre Company March 29-April 14 at The Marcelle Theatre. For more information, visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.