freeFall's Daddy Long Legs makes a maligned musical great again

This brilliant take on Hollywood's misrepresentation of the play gets it really, really right.

Daddy Long Legs

Four of five stars.

freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Pete.

Through Apr. 8. $25-$50.

727-498-5205. Get tickets here

click to enlarge Daddy Longlegs at American Stage - CJB Lighting
CJB Lighting
Daddy Longlegs at American Stage

I am a generation too young to have seen Daddy Long Legs when it was fresh — at least, the 1955 film. I am way too young to have read Jean Webster's 1912 novel on which the subsequent play (and aforementioned film) was based. In the days preceding freeFall's opening night, the storyline troubled me. freeFall — a bastion of edgy theater (Mr. Burns, anyone?) — producing a play about a young orphan becoming a kept woman at the whim of a man she's never supposed to meet? 

Seriously, take a look at this trailer, in which Fred Astaire, 56 years old at the time, plays anonymous benefactor smitten with an 18-year-old orphan. I mean, I've always loved older men, but... 38 years? Um, sexual predator, party of one?

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I mention this because as much as I'd love to believe we've all read the 1912 novel or the dramatization of it that opened in New York City in 1914, I'd bet my cat — the good one, even — that our closest brush with this is the giant Technicolor movie that, quite honestly, edges towards creepy. Point is, it didn't set well with me at all. I'd spent last weekend reviewing HIR and Marjorie Prime and what the hell was I doing giving any ink to a show about the abysmal cesspool from which every woman in America has had to climb?

And then the house lights dimmed and the music began and I remembered: Oh, right, freeFall

See, Hollywood misses a lot in its storytelling, but what they missed, director Douglas S. Hall brought forth masterfully, and with great heart and charm. He brings forth the socialist themes, the women's rights movement — all the things Webster had in the book (she supported Eugene V. Debs, although women couldn't yet vote, advocated for orphanage reform, and Teddy Roosevelt came to see her on her honeymoon, because, reportedly, he'd always wanted to meet her and reading her bio, my God, why wouldn't he?). So that's what you're getting here, and you get it good.

Britta Ollmann turns in a splendid performance as Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan in the asylum, charming us from the get-go as a young woman who has no family, no friends and no real prospects. Nick Lerew plays opposite her as her wealthy, only-slightly-older benefactor, Jervis Pendleton, and while his character can be kind of a dick (he's fallen in love with Jerusha, so he forbids her from spending a summer with her friend because he doesn't want another suitor to win her heart, and he gets away with it because he's pulling the financial strings), his character also wants to fund her education because he sees her potential as a writer.

The show — I hesitate to call it a musical because, yes, there's a lot of music but not in the nonsensical musical way (less "hey, we're walking down the street, so how about a singing flashmob now?" and more "I happen to be singing these words that also advance the action") — holds Pendleton to task, and Ollman's performance is so sincere and insistent, bringing forth the overarching themes of equality. 

And don't let me gloss over the songs too quickly, because on top of those voices — and they both are magnificent, especially at the moment Jerusha's voice changes in timbre as she goes from "orphan girl" to "young woman" — freeFall has a trio backstage: Michael Raabe (also the musical director) on the piano, John Chitterton on the cello and Paul Stoddart on the guitar, and if, on opening night, they occasionally overpowered Ollman's dulcet tones, well, we can assume that will be rectified in future performances and focus instead on the beautiful music a live trio produces. 

Perhaps the biggest win of the show, though, is the set, designed by Eric Davis, also freeFall's artistic director. Davis's set and Cody Basham's (CJB Lighting) lighting design rarely leave a moment not charged with import; they also leave a moment where either actor is offstage, and he blends their worlds well. It's an exceptional set that balances authenticity with function and beauty, and everything about it is a joy to watch. 

freeFall's production of Daddy Long Legs truly has it all: Socialist themes, women's rights, a love story and a brilliantly directed musical. The lone hiccup in the design is Pendleton's Act Two costume, which seems ill-fitted, especially for a wealthy man. 

Of course, if that's the worst thing about a production — that the actor's suit pants are too large — well, Tampa Bay theatergoers are a lucky lot. 

And, this weekend, we have freeFall to thank for that. 

Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact her here.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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