- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

Frank Capra’s 1941 film “Meet John Doe” is a classic, and the world-premiere musical adaptation playing at Ford’s Theatre is a classic of a different nature.

The uneven new work exemplifies just how extraordinarily difficult it is to craft a stage musical even if you have a miracle worker like director Eric Schaeffer at the helm.

Mr. Schaeffer and his team lovingly re-create the ambience of classic Hollywood films with an almost black-and-white palette and stark lighting to tell the story of John Willoughby (James Moye), a baseball player with a bum arm who’s down on his luck before becoming the flesh-and-blood incarnation of “John Doe,” a fictional character cooked up by desperate newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Heidi Blickenstaff) to save her job. You may remember the sparks flying between Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the movie version.

On the verge of being pink-slipped, Ann bangs out a column about John Doe, an Everyman so fed up with the sorry state of America that, in protest, he vows to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge on Christmas Eve. This gesture — and his Christ-like message of “love thy neighbor” and cooperate with your fellow man — resonates across the country with scores of other schmoes struggling in 1930s America. John Doe becomes a cultural phenomenon, and even the tough-talking Ann starts falling in love with her idealistic creation. However, when the evil newspaper publisher D.B Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) comes up with a scheme to use John Doe’s sway with the people to establish a fascist political party, Ann has to figure out how to save her hide and her humanist hero.

Theatrical artistry abounds in “Meet John Doe”: Mr. Schaeffer’s ability to make pate out of Tender Vittles, Derek McLane’s film-noir-ish industrial set, Karma Camp’s sprightly choreography, Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, an ensemble consisting of some of the finest vocalists and character actors in town, and a couple of outstanding lead performances.

Yet window dressing can’t turn Dollar Bill’s into Barney’s. Aside from a smattering of catchy tunes, the combination of Andrew Gerle’s music and Eddie Sugarman’s lyrics is doggedly unmemorable, and there are nadirs in the show’s two acts that seem to last longer than the Great Depression itself. The bright spots include the fetching bravado of Ann’s declaration of ambition, “I’m Your Man,” and the spiffy patter songs “Get the Picture” and “Money Talks,” the latter performed with Broadway-caliber brio by Stephen Gregory Smith and Joel Blum. In the second act, “Thank You” is an a cappella highlight by the ensemble, and the love songs “He Threw Me” and “Who the Hell?” convey the lovely surprise of going from cynic to lovesick sap. As a canny newspaper editor, Guy Paul is both hard-boiled and poignant, but his big number, “Lighthouses,” is a schmaltz-laden disaster.

The structure of the musical is awkward, and while Mr. Capra’s movie convincingly sells a message of optimism and near-religious conversion in a time when America was just emerging from a trying era, the musical version conveys a more troubling and cynical ambivalence.

Perhaps the problems lie in the source material, because the original short story has the hero jumping off a building at the end, and Mr. Capra shot five endings but wasn’t completely satisfied with any of them.

Nevertheless, what disturbs more than a musical with a suicide ending is the character of Ann and her motivations.

Maybe the media fabrications of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass are too fresh. We’re supposed to root for a tabloid hack who lies to the public and keeps perpetuating falsehoods — and crows in a song that her principled dead father should be so proud of her — just to appease her hunger for fame?

Ann’s conversion into someone with a conscience is not anywhere near as convincing as her appetite for notoriety and her newfound hunger for nice clothes and limos bestowed by D.B. Norton. You just don’t buy it. Nor are you entirely won over by John Doe’s common-man appeal.

They’re brimming with something, but it certainly isn’t hope.

**

WHAT: “Meet John Doe,” music by Andrew Gerle, lyrics by Eddie Sugarman

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 29.

TICKETS: $35 to $52

PHONE: 202/347-7328

MAXIMUM RATING: FOR STARS

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