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Actors Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan know big. No strangers to mega-musicals, both have lent their powerful voices to massive productions, with McGinnis appearing on Broadway in Les Misérables and Beauty And The Beast and Nolan performing in the epic Doctor Zhivago. But this time around, starring in Daddy Long Legs, the actors have no rousing ensemble or rotating sets to help them bolster the energy.
The mostly sung-through musical features only two actors, which is demanding enough, and on top of that, the characters rarely address each other directly. Instead, they speak to the audience, telling the story of their blossoming bond via the letters they exchange.
Adapted from the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, Daddy Long Legs features music and lyrics by Tony Award nominee Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and is directed by Tony Award and Olivier Award winner John Caird (Les Misérables, Nicholas Nickleby), who also wrote the book.
In the story, a young woman named Jerusha is living in an orphanage when she learns that an anonymous, wealthy benefactor has elected to send her to college. Her patron, "Daddy Long Legs," has one condition: she must write him a monthly letter chronicling the details of her educational journey. Jerusha dreams of a literary career and channels her talents into the heartfelt correspondences. Her poetic outpourings spark a dormant flame in Jervis, who concocts a ruse in order to meet Jerusha under the guise of a different character.
In telling such an intimate story, the mini-cast has discovered the power of their 149-seat venue, The Davenport Theatre.
"We can see almost everyone's face in the theatre because it's such a wonderfully small space," says McGinnis. "We actually have the benefit of connecting with every single person in the audience, and that's something John Caird has worked on very hard with us. He pointed out that, when addressing the audience, every single person is 'Daddy' for me and every single person is 'Jerusha' for Paul."
Both actors have attributed the show's tone to Caird's creative diplomacy. "John's very clever," says Nolan. "He watches and gathers what you give and never makes you feel like you can't try things, as some directors do."
As he's experimented with his performance, Nolan has discovered the potential pitfalls of a small space, especially in the context of his numerous comic moments. "There is a real possibility of going too far," he says. "Because I'm tapping into the [part of me] that started out acting as a kid, who loved being a show-off." He adds that "there's a bit of a show-off in Jervis," particularly in the scene when he puts on a disguise. "If you do subtle work, they'll get it. But there is also a stylistic hugeness to the farce [in those moments]. So I'm having to manage that right now: seeing how far I can go. I'm pretty sure last night I went a little too far for the crowd because I felt them back off."
As to the conundrum of whether size really matters, Nolan contends that an actor's craft should ideally remain the same whether addressing an audience eye-to-eye or projecting to the upper balcony.
"I'm a huge believer that audiences will get what you're thinking if your thought is clear," he stresses. "If the writing is good enough, the director is good at focusing attention, and the acting is clear, I really believe that the audience will come to you. That may be a vague way of saying it, but acting is a mystery."
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Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Manhattan
Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top photo: Paul Alexander Nolan and Megan McGinnis.