They should be handing out martinis and cigarettes over at The Theatre at St. Clements where Meet John Doe, the new lush and jazzy 1930s-era musical is playing. Based on the 1941 Frank Capra film of the same name, Meet John Doe is far from perfect, but given a festival that has presented its fair share of satiric and parodic shows, how refreshing it is to see a work that is decidedly smart and serious. Finally, a sophisticated musical for adults that doesn't talk down to the audience!
It also helps that the show has the talented Donna Lynne Champlin for its leading lady. Her electric eyes and rangy belting voice grab you and don't let go, turning her unsatisfying half-formed character Ann Mitchell into a likable personality. Mitchell is a depression-era journalist who needs to come up with a sure-fire story to dodge a pink slip and secure her job at the New American Times. She comes up with the idea to invent a newspaper column based on the disgruntled musings of imaginary common man "John Doe," whose story pulls at the heartstrings of the financially-drained and depressed American masses who sing of their woes in the show's bitter opening number "Can't Read the Paper Any More." Doe turns out to be a bigger success than the paper expects, and so the paper hires John Willoughby (Michael Halling) to serve as a live stand-in for the imaginary Doe. Willoughby falls for Ann whose sights are set on newspaper mogul D.B. Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan), a corrupt businessman has more sinister plans for the "John Doe Movement" up his sleeve.
Hands down, the best part of Meet John Doe is its snazzy score. Composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman (who collaborated together on the book) have written songs that are both tunefully melodic and richly complex. Gerle has a particular talent for choral numbers that reveal subtle harmonies while Sugarman's insightful lyrics provide the large ensemble with a sense of character often absent in big musicals. Sugarman shows off clever writing in the snappy "I Feel Too Good," in which Ann humorously tries to get John to feign anger for some publicity shots, as well as in a lovely duet between Ann and her mother (Melissa Hart) in which they sing about the men in their lives. Ann's first big number "I'm Your Man" is a real catchy winner (particularly as sung by Champlin), sharply revealing Ann's tough and eager personality.
Why though, after such a stunning announcement of "go get 'em" drive, is Ann almost forgotten by the writers? Oh sure, she's on stage singing in a handful of duets and group numbers, but with all the plot to cover, somehow Ann's emotional side is all but forgotten. Ultimately, Ann doesn't come off as the leading lady than she really needs to be. This oversight proves particularly disastrous for the second act in which Ann confesses her love for John Doe/John Willoughby. When did this change of heart happen though? During intermission in the dressing room? Gerle and Sugarman give no reason or warning for Ann's shift of emotions and when she pours out her heart to John in her final eleven o'clock number, it's too little too late.
Meet John Doe is best when its music is gritty, brash, and dark, but the show often takes detours into the land of sweet and pleasant. Capra's story, though, is ultimately one of cynicism, lies, and deceit, themes that Gerle and Sugarman only partially communicate. When the company sings the lyrical "He Speaks to Me" at the end of act one, the song's platitudes about hope and kindness that Doe advocates are too sincere, not at all undercut by any sense of skepticism that the show really demands. This particular approach to the material continues through act two, not only slowing down the show, making it quite dull at times, but totally eviscerating all of the edginess that the creators teased us with in the first act.
The show's lack of bite is also partially attributable to Michael Halling as John Willoughby. Halling has a sparkling voice, but is miscast as he lacks enough substance to make us care for his character. The imaginary John Doe might be a cipher with all of his common man pap, but from a leading man point of view, Willoughby ultimately needs to be more charismatic.
Director Matt August's inventive staging makes one forget that this is actually a concert presentation of Meet John Doe (the actors sometimes have books in hand). This might be a big "old-fashioned" musical, but August's work more than makes up for the lack of major scenery, including presumably what in a full production would be a set piece for the Brooklyn Bridge, the location of much of the show's action.
Despite some issues with the show's tone, Gerle and Sugarman definitely have a lot of excellent groundwork laid that hopefully will soon bear riper fruits. Clearly, their gut reaction is not to create characters so despicable that the audience will turn away. However, given the corrupt world in which we live, I would surmise that a little more nastiness and slyness is what this show needs to make the audience sit up and take notice.
New York Musical Theatre Festival