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We Love You, Johnny Hero

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It's amazing how often vicious attacks can actually benefit their intended target. Librettist-lyricist Sara Cooper and composer Chris Shimojima undoubtedly thought that their musical at the Fringe Festival, We Love You, Johnny Hero, would be a powerful strike against George W. Bush's much-maligned presidency. But given the implosive results of their restless, cellophane-thin allegory at the DR2 Theatre, the score currently stands as follows: President Bush: 1; We Love You, Johnny Hero: 0.

President Bush is never named, but there's no doubt he served as the model for the stealth replacement for the secretly dispatched United States President, Johnny Hero. While the original Hero was a well-intentioned guy with one little failing (he was a serial philanderer), his newly installed doppelgänger is a terrifying travesty. He's cocky. He's simpleminded. He's bereft of original ideas. He demands utter fealty, not only from American citizens, but also the media. Yet, somehow, almost no one can see that a good man has been replaced by an agent of evil (Hero's vice president and the power behind the throne, played by Kaolin Bass).

Only integrity-stuffed journalist Jeannie (Sara Wolski) knows the truth, but no one will listen to her, partially because the vice president has colluded with Jeannie's oil magnate husband (Gregory Allan Bock) to convince everyone she's insane. Will Jeannie make her case heard before it's too late? Will the U.S. survive? Most importantly, will the writers give us reason to care? That question, alas, is never answered, and it's the crux of why this excruciating excursion into political exploitation fails as both statement and entertainment.

While the writers obviously intended their piece to parallel the socially conscious musicals of Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera) and Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock), Cooper's book is chronically humor-deficient, and lacks the craft that would elevate its preachiness to art. The messages (all politicians are in bed with journalists, all journalists are in bed with the oil companies, no one in power can be trusted) are delivered without a trace of cleverness, and feel unduly heavy-handed given the shambolic structure that begins neither act with a musical and thrives on quick successions of terse, barely relevant scenes. Following the story is, at best, a chore.

The score is, if anything, more challenging. The musical equivalent of a migraine, it's primarily composed of dissonant, ostinato-laden numbers rendered in dirge-drenched minor keys, and performed by actors and an orchestra who have seemingly committed themselves to singing or playing as flat as possible, as often as possible.

Wolski, who demonstrates this ability in no fewer than 11 numbers, is the Offender in Chief, and her breathlessly eager acting also does little to further encourage our affection. (Nor does the book's painting her as a paragon of virtue after showing her cheating on her husband with the married President Hero.) Most of the performers tend to follow the lead of director Cooper, confusing symbolism with overacting at every opportunity. Only Noah DeBiase, as the hipster terrorist Malcolm Y (his name is the height of the book's wit) who's working to change things from the groundlings up, compellingly embodies a character with something not only worth saying, but also maybe worth hearing.

His big number, "I Dream of An America," is a plaintively beautiful anthem to socialism that - for the only time all evening - truly approaches melody. Giving him a number so clear and so listenable tells us a great deal about the authors of We Love You, Johnny Hero. That a few minutes later they annihilate this goodwill by forcing DeBiase into a cringeworthy duet with Wolski called "Stockholm Syndrome," in which hipsterrorist captor and kidnappee explore their burgeoning romance, says even more about Cooper, Shimojima, and their willingness to damage their own cause by not recognizing when not enough is already too much.


We Love You, Johnny Hero
Through August 26
Running Time: 2 hours
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org