PORT TOWNSEND — Imagine opening a letter that, in an instant, opens up a new future.
This letter, from a writer whose silhouette you have only glimpsed, informs you of complete funding for college tuition, room and board. All the sender asks in return is that you write him once a month to let him know how life is going.
It happens to young Jerusha Abbott, the eldest resident of an orphans’ asylum. One of the facility’s trustees visits one day, leaving this missive behind. All she sees of him is a spindly shadow cast in the headlights of his car — and she names him Daddy Long Legs.
Away we go, on a wild ride aboard a train of letters. In Key City Public Theatre’s “Daddy Long Legs,” Jerusha is a naive young woman sharing correspondence with a worldly man. Turns out she has something to teach him.
At 7:30 tonight Key City Public Theatre is opening the first West Coast production of “Daddy Long Legs” since the closing of its successful off-Broadway run in 2016.
“Daddy Long Legs” will run through July 1, Thursday through Sunday, at Key City Public Theatre, 419 Washington St.
Tickets are $24 for Thursday or Sunday shows and $29 for Friday or Saturday shows.
Sunday matinees begin at 2:30 p.m. and evening shows at 7:30.
Pay-What-You-Wish performances are scheduled for Sunday and Thursday.
To purchase tickets, or for more information on special events and pricing, go to www.keycitypublictheatre.org or call the box office at 360-385-5278.
Christa Holbrook, a native of Port Townsend, is Jerusha. Her mysterious benefactor is Jervis Pendleton, portrayed appropriately by a guy from the big city: Vince Wingerter of Tacoma, an actor whose credits include touring with the national production of “Mamma Mia!”
As Jerusha composes her letters to Jervis, she describes her awakening to the world outside the orphanage and free from poverty. In her flowing skirts and silken blouses, Holbrook steps into the light of college life, infusing her letters with all the excitement.
We hear her composing her reports; we watch him reading them. And yes, a romance develops — but this couple does not tread the typical path.
“She has a passion for independence,” said Holbrook, adding that while “Daddy Long Legs” comes from Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, this story of a woman’s hope for a better future is a timeless one.
Holbrook is a commanding presence. She’s on stage for the entire show, while Wingerter is back in his office for much of the first act. Jerusha’s letters lure him forward; all the while, an onstage three-piece band dishes out a driving soundtrack.
Linda Dowdell, jazz-rock-classical pianist-arranger, leads the ensemble, which features guitarist Michael Townsend and Seattle-based cellist Maryann Tapiro.
Dowdell adapted the music, including his-and-hers versions of the song “The Secret of Happiness,” from the 2015 off-Broadway “Daddy Long Legs.” That musical is one of many, including stage productions in California, Winnipeg and Tokyo. Dance-movie fans remember the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron.
Port Townsend’s “Daddy Long Legs,” the Pacific Northwest premiere, is a classic Key City Public Theatre affair, with the action tumbling forth inches from the audience. Holbrook, Wingerter and their band seem larger than life in the cabaret-style setting. Director Brendan Chambers, artistic director and choreographer Denise Winter, costumer Beverly Michaelsen and lighting man Albert Mendez make it happen.
“One of my favorite things about this musical is the format,” said Chambers, Key City’s artistic apprentice.
“It is not conventional,” told as it is through handwritten letters — those pieces of paper with the spark to set hearts aflame.”
The man with the title role offered another reflection. It would be easy, Wingerter said, to simplify “Daddy” as another “My Fair Lady,” in which the man grooms the woman to be his future ideal.
“I think Miss Jerusha Abbott would disagree … in the attempt to control her, however well-intentioned, the teacher becomes the student,” he said.
“It’s through her disobedience — and independence — that he grows and questions his own actions.”
Wingerter added that the original story sprang from Webster’s interest in women’s suffrage and social work.
“It would be interesting to see what she would write today,” he said. He sees it as a tribute to Webster when “Daddy Long Legs” has, well, legs across the generations.
Winter, for her part, believes the story is about a young woman’s empowerment via education — and of finding her voice.
It reminds us, she said, “how far we’ve come and the distance we’ve yet to go.”
Holbrook, inhabiting her lead role, rarely has a chance to catch her breath during the two-hour show.
The key to the character — and the actress’ — strength?
“Jerusha Abbot,” Holbrook said, “is fueled by positivity and awareness.”