Lyrics by Eddie Sugarman
Book by Andrew Gerle & Eddie Sugarman
Based on the Frank Capra film
Produced by Porchlight Music Theatre
At Stage 773, Chicago
Meet John Doe tries to be an inspiring operetta
Porchlight Music Theatre’s huge gamble – mounting a Midwest Premiere of an unknown musical has mixed results. This is the musical version of Frank Capra’a 1941 film staring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, Meet John Doe. Shattered Globe Theatre, a few years back, mounted a dramatic non-musical version of Meet John Doe that nearly bankrupted the company despite strong production values and raves. So, Porchlight Music Theatre bravely proceeds with Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman’s Meet John Doe, the musical.
Meet John Doe has 24 songs that mostly come right out of character that either further the story or underscore the tone or emotions. The style is a jazzy Broadway pastiche as an ode to the 1930’s (as the show is set in 1932 in New York). It is an American fable in a pure Frank Capra theme concerning the basic goodness of human nature.
The story is steeped in Depression Era trouble that finds a major New York newspaper laying off many due to falling circulation. Ann Mitchell (the spirited Elizabeth Lanza) write a letter about a “John Doe” who is so despondent with life and times that he’ll commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge in Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills. When the published note causes a sensation, the paper rehires Ann and she convinces the editor Connell (Jim Sherman) to start a “Doe campaign” with a suitable common guy as its face. He agrees and she finds former minor league baseball player, John Willoughby, aka John Doe (Karl Hamilton), and employs him to be John Doe. Ann writes the “Doe” philosophy that asks everyone to be friendly and help their fellow man. The message becomes a national grassroots movement fueled by cash from the newspaper’s publisher, D.B. Norton (Mick Weber) – himself with a grander motive.
As the Doe phenomena spreads, Doe actually starts to believe in the philosophy and Ann and Doe begin to fancy each other. When Ann discovers Norton’s plan, she must decide who and what she stands for – Doe or Norton and all that goes with each. Doe learns about Norton’s sinister plan and he tries to expose it but becomes defeated by the forces of power. The ending is different from the film and will surprise audiences.
I have mixed feelings about this production. Generally, the sound mix made for many of the singers being overwhelmed by the orchestra. I also though that the ensemble has too many weak voices. In an attempt to be an operetta, many of the 24 songs seemed forced and they had a ‘talk-song’ sound similar to the William Finn style. The use of many baseball references diluted the effects of several tunes. Generally, the show is a chamber piece that tries to be a grand musical with large-scale ‘showstoppers.’ Other than Elizabeth Lanza, as Ann, and Karl Hamilton, as Doe, the singing was weak. The two leads nailed their tune with rich emotions but the miscast Mick Weber, as the villain Norton, was stiff and proved that he isn’t a singer. Jim Sherman sang a heart-felt number – “Lighthouses.” But the lack of memorable songs and the sameness of the score wore thin over two plus hours. The message of Meet John Doe is a worthy one that still resonates today but I’m not sure that the show benefits from being a musical.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: March 8, 2011
For full show information, check out the Meet John Doe page at Theatre In Chicago.
At Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-327-5252, www.stage773.com, tickets $38, Fridays 7 Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30, running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission, through April 17, 2011