Story snares with heart-felt music, lyrics, performances

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By Bob Evans

Who doesn’t love a timeless classic love story that features two seemingly different people, learning, growing and loving one another with only a few pitfalls along the way to happily ever afterland?

If you like that, come and visit the Just Off Broadway theatre for their current, new to Kansas City musical, “Daddy Long Legs.” Be prepared to fall in love as you watch two talented actors take on a full-length, two person musical where they must remain onstage over 90% of the time with little or no interaction.

Charm and emotion just ooze from Samantha McHenry as Jerusha Abbott in her Kansas City debut. Matching her with an aloof, but yearning to open himself up to new levels of feeling, John Cleary takes on a different role that allows his to show his softer, more vulnerable side. Both powerful actors, they create the prefect balance of a young ingenue and a slightly older man, both searching for unconditional love as the story unfolds. Jerusha, an orphan, raised in an orphanage and from a world of limited experience and void of luxury contrasts perfectly against Jervis Pendleton, a wealthy man who never knew the struggles of the impoverished class. Jervis bestows educational funds on select students (always males–until Jerusha catches his attention) to help them rise from their current life station and have a chance for success.

Spinning Tree Theatre again raised expectations by presenting a new play to the local audiences and again added quality at all junctures to create a magical night of entertainment through story, acting, singing, and all the technical aspects that change a performance from customary to exquisite. Directing the show and creating her vision of this charming piece, Sarah Crawford gave this show a simplicity and ease that just keeps the action flowing and moving. Her concept kept the actors moving in a production that could have easily become stiff and monotonous. With only two actors and minimalist set pieces, movement and pacing are paramount to a successful

performance of this piece, Crawford excelled in bringing a fluid look and continuity to each act.

“Daddy Long Legs” is nothing really that new. If you have seen the old Fred Astair/Leslie Caron musical, you know the story–well, kind of. “Daddy Long Legs” is set in New York instead of somewhere else. But the magic works anyway. The charming story has been retold several times in movies, just with a few twists to change it a little. As movies, think In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson; think Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan; think You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan; musically, think “She Loves Me” a Broadway show that’s been revived several times. “Daddy Long Legs” is the same story line. If you enjoyed any of all of the other versions of this story, you will like this one.

As for the musical score, “Daddy Long Legs” features a wealth of musical numbers that tell the story and the emotions of each character as they slowly learn to care for each other through the written word (or in this case sung word). The show works because McHenry captures the audience’s attention from her first song and carries them through the story. Cleary allows his staunch persona to slowly melt as the show rolls along and his gruff exterior fades as his protected inner-self finds the confidence to overcome his shy exterior and expose himself to the love he realizes he needs for fulfillment.

McHenry’s vocals and performance point her toward star-status–just give her time to become known in New York. She’s young, fresh, and has acting and vocal talents to bring audiences to their feet. Cleary has a powerful voice and his resume from local shows demonstrates he can undertake almost any role with conviction. Cleary shines in musical roles, but does not shy away from straight, serious roles when offered. Together, they show great chemistry in this piece, which moves the enjoyment factor from good to fantastic.

As with so many productions, a team effort makes for an enjoyable, memorable theatre experience. The creative juices and talents co-mingle in this production and provide enjoyment of all levels. The lighting stands out in this tricky black box theatre. The final scene is beautifully lit and memorable for the created mood. The sound, always tricky in the Just Off Broadway Theatre works so well in this piece and remains constant and equal throughout all movement. The costumes, sets, props, stage management, all create a design that works. The creative team created excellence for this production.

The cast and production team is: Samantha McHenry as Jerusha Abbott, John Cleary as Jervis Pendleton. The creative team is: Sarah Crawford, director; Nicole Jaja, lighting design; Julia Ubert, scenic design; Mary Traylor, costume design; Jeff Eubank, sound design; Eric Palmquist, properties design; Ashley Pike, state management; assistant lighting designer, Warren Deckert; Assistant scenic designer, Kevin Sess.; Production assistant, Nicole Williams. Music by Jeremy Jacobs, music direction, piano; Rachel Fuentes, cello; Daniel Vershelden, guitar.

“Daddy Long Legs” continues at the Just Off Broadway Theatre through Sept. 2. Tickets may be purchased at the door or through the Spinning Tree Theatre website.

Tags: “Daddy Long Legs”, Spinning Tree Theatre, Just Off Broadway Theatre, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment.

Images courtesy of Bob Evans | KC Applauds, J. Robert Schraeder/Spinning Tree Theatre, Bob Evans and Spinning Tree Theatre

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