Meet John Doe
Also see Susan's review of The Pillowman
The stage musical version of Frank Capra's 1940 movie Meet John Doe now receiving its world premiere at Ford's Theatre in Washington has many things going for it, especially leading lady Heidi Blickenstaff and the clever black-and-white production design. It's certainly entertaining and uplifting, but it never takes that step beyond workmanlike to sparkling.
The creators of Meet John Doe – composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman, who co-wrote the book – do understand that, while this story of idealism and corruption has contemporary parallels, it has to remain in its original time period, the 1930s, if it's going to succeed without pushing too hard. Director Eric Schaeffer has assembled an accomplished ensemble cast to help keep it clattering along, with a powerful assist from Karma Camp's musical staging.
In Depression-era New York City, slick tycoon D.B. Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) buys a struggling newspaper and renames it "The New American Times," just before he starts cutting people from the staff. (The audience knows instantly that Norton is the bad guy when, after his opening speech, he grins and takes out a large cigar.) In a last-ditch attempt to save her job, hard-boiled reporter Ann Mitchell (Blickenstaff) fakes a letter from an anonymous "John Doe" stating that he will jump from a bridge on Christmas Eve as a protest against everything that's wrong with the world.
The John Doe character soon becomes a sensation, and Norton, who knows a publicity bonanza when he sees one, keeps Ann (secretly) on salary to ghostwrite a daily column as John Doe. To maintain the fiction, Ann sets out to find a man among the unemployed who can be the public face of the fictitious character. She finds John Willoughby (James Moye), a minor-league baseball pitcher who hasn't worked since he injured his arm. He agrees to go along with the scheme in exchange for surgery to repair his arm. As one might guess, the situation gets a lot more complicated before it's over.
Most of the score by Gerle and Sugarman is character-driven, such as "I'm Your Man," as Ann desperately tries to talk her editor (crusty Guy Paul) out of firing her; "Be More," Norton's credo to Ann; and the second-act duet between Ann and John. But the single most affecting moment is the a cappella chorus "Thank You," when a crowd of ordinary folks in a roadside diner tell John what he has meant to them.
Blickenstaff's dynamic performance powers the production, and Moye is well matched with her in looks and voice. In truth, Schaeffer has an all-star cast here, as just about everyone has previously appeared in major roles.
Scenic designer Derek McLane conjures up the grimness of the period with an industrial-style setting: a metal bridge across the stage, which also holds the orchestra, and smaller set pieces moving in and out as needed. Alejo Vietti's monochromatic costumes offer glamour and seediness as needed, and Rui Rita's lighting design periodically shifts the mood with washes of muted color.