Sophia Mobbs as orphan Jerusha Abbott, right, who only knows her wealthy benefactor – Jervis Pendleton, played by Henry Hetz, left – as Daddy Long Legs. Photo by Aaron Flacke

After a year without a show at the venerable Theater at Monmouth, it was – as one masked and socially distanced audience member at opening night of “Daddy Long Legs” could be overheard saying – “nice just to be here.”

“Here” was the uniquely beautiful performance space at Cumston Hall, one of a few venues where the theater will stage its usually challenging repertory of plays, from classical to contemporary. But those who set the program for the theater’s 2021 season wisely opted to begin with something sweet and warmly entertaining. Of course, there’s still just enough messaging in this first show to meet the season’s overall theme: “(R)evolutionary Redux.”

Based on a novel from 1912 by Jean Webster, “Daddy Long Legs” went through several film adaptations, notably one starring Fred Astaire, before John Caird and Paul Gordon reinvented it as a stage musical in 2009. With only two actors backed by a trio of offstage musicians, this attractive – if a bit long – show, directed by Adam P. Blais, achieves a charming sense of intimacy as we witness the slow development of a long-distance relationship in 1908 New England.

Sophia Mobbs plays Jerusha Abbott, an institutionalized orphan who gains the attention of wealthy benefactor Jervis Pendleton (known to her only as Daddy Long Legs for his briefly observed stature), played by Henry Hetz. Jervis offers to pay all the expenses for the talented Jerusha to attend college. He will remain anonymous to her but will expect regular letters from her updating him on her progress. His decision not to answer her increasingly personal letters becomes a challenge for them both.

Jerusha’s letters form the basis of the storytelling, as the initially naïve young woman slowly begins to develop her strong personality around issues of gaining adulthood. Broader questions are also raised about the limits to her future as an independent-minded writer in a country that does not even allow women the right to vote.

The contents of the letters are, for the most part, alternately sung by the writer and the reader, often changing leads mid-line. The songs tend toward the sentimental with Mobbs’ soft soprano conveying the depths of both her character’s growing passion for life and frustrations that her benefactor will not reveal himself to her. Hetz allows his shy rich guy to be affected by her weighty words, mostly in a mid-range tenor that just occasionally flattened out a bit at higher volumes on opening night.

The music making, overall, was remarkably tasteful and engaging. The feeling that the two-hour show sacrificed a bit of its magic after intermission was hard to avoid, though, as the songs just kept coming and coming, offering a little bit too much of a good thing.

The set by Dan Bilodeau and costumes by Michelle Handley matched the period comfortably and the lighting by Jim Alexander and music, directed by Rebecca Caron, warmed the budding romance between Jerusha and Jervis as they gradually emerge from behind their desks and enter a new world.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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