Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Meet John Doe
Stage 773

Also see John's review of God of Carnage

Elizabeth Lanza and Jim Sherman
The films of Frank Capra, with their grand, humanistic themes of hope, and colorful characters with oversized emotions, would seem to be great source material for musical theater, and this musicalization of the 1941 Capra movie makes a strong case for that premise. It may not warm the hearts of writers Andrew Gerle (composer and co-bookwriter) and Eddie Sugarman (lyricist and co-bookwriter) that their musical, which had its first workshop at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2004, still needs work; but it may be only one or two drafts and a killer song away from being a very fine and commercially promising musical.

Meet John Doe doesn't seem the easiest of Capra's films to adapt. The story of a Depression-era newspaper columnist who saves her own job by inventing an out-of-work man who promises to kill himself the on the next Christmas Eve as a protest against the inhumanity of society, is fairly dark and a little fuzzy in its point-of-view. The columnist, Ann Mitchell (Elizabeth Lanza), hires an injured minor league baseball player (Karl Hamilton) to pose in photos as her invented everyman, but we don't actually learn much of her rhetoric until he delivers it in public on a live radio broadcast. Then, it seems to be simply an entreaty for us to be kinder and more helpful to each other. When his broadcast sparks a national grassroots response, with millions across the US joining "John Doe Societies," the movement is sponsored and co-opted by mega-millionaire D.B. Norton (Mick Weber), who hopes to use it to launch his own bid for the U.S. presidency.

So we have a rich guys vs. little guys theme with Norton as the villain, but a proposition that Americans help each without the interference of government that today's conservatives would likely endorse. It might take a clearer vision and a more compelling ideal than that to inspire the sorts of songs that could uplift an audience. Gerle and Sugarman take a shot at it with their first act closer, "He Speaks to Me," as we see regular Joes and Janes across the U.S. transformed by John Doe's words—but it's not quite the soaring anthem the show really needs at this point.

That's a shame, because the first act is otherwise quite solid. The first fifteen minutes or so, entirely musicalized, are fast-paced and amusingly establish the setting and situation. The ensemble, dressed in 1941 fashion by Elizabeth Powell Wislar, steps on to Ian Zywica's set dominated by a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and assorted newspaper headlines. Their opening number, "Yesterday's News," is a cynically comic self-referential lament by the laid-off staff of the New York newspaper newly acquired by tycoon Norton. The ensemble moves manically yet confidently in the energetic and assured staging by director-choreographer James Beaudry.

Ann—played on screen by Barbara Stanwyck—is seen from the beginning to be a force of nature. With her solo, "I'm Your Man," in which she begs for her job, this is one heck of a musical theater lead role. She's tough and determined, yet smart and sensitive, and Ms. Lanza's polished performance shows that this is a part that would be attractive to any number of Broadway divas. Her John Doe (nee "Long" John Willoughby) is reconceived effectively for the musical stage as well. This is no small feat considering the character was created on film by the archetypical "strong and silent" man, Gary Cooper—hardly the type prone to express feelings at all, let alone through song. On screen, John was made known to the audience largely through close-ups of Cooper's mute but expressive face. Hamilton remolds John modestly, without imitating Cooper, and uses his impressive baritone to display his manliness and virtue. Doe could use a bit more stage time and dialogue to boost his presence vis a vis the powerhouse Ann, but the writers and Hamilton have done a creditable job of turning a Gary Cooper role into a character who might sing, most impressively with his solo "I Feel Like a Man Again." That song is preceded by a moment in which John catches a glimpse of himself, newly cleaned up and wardrobe, in an unseen mirror. It's a nice stage equivalent to Cooper's cinematic close-ups.

There's great character work, too, starting with Rus Rainear in the Walter Brennan role of The Colonel, John's hobo pal. Rainear dryly delivers some of the show's funniest lines in puckish fashion, and like Lanza as Ann, proves his role to be the type of showcase many character actors would covet. Jim Sherman is the gruff newspaper editor Connell and Sean Effinger-Dean is fine as Norton's toady, Beany. The score is melodic and quite traditionally Broadway in its sound, and mildly pastiches showtunes of the '30s and '40s with Sugarman's fresh and clever lyrics. Gerle's reduced orchestrations are satisfying and nicely performed by music director Eugene Dizon and a five-piece band.

At intermission, the show felt satisfying and very much the sort of thing one could picture on Broadway, but the second act falters. Here, as in the film, Gerle and Sugarman's faithful book starts to reveal Norton's plot to use the John Doe movement to advance his own political career and agenda, one which clearly does not have the common man's best interests at heart. This shift in tone is more problematic here than in the film, as the musical has more humor than does the film up to this point in the story. Also hindering the act is its focus on Norton, who is seen very little in the first act, so we're not set up to be suspicious of him. It also hurts that as Norton, Mick Weber—who has the presence and look for the role—gives a rather wooden and unimaginative performance.

The dark tone of the second act leads to an ending which—spoiler alert—is not the ending ultimately used in the film, though it was apparently the original conclusion of Robert Riskin's screenplay. Here's the spoiler: After Doe, who has learned of Norton's plot, promises to expose it at the national convention of John Doe Societies, Doe is himself exposed to his followers at the convention as a fake, who never actually planned to kill himself. They cruelly turn on him and he then considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve just as Ann's bogus letter had promised. In the film, he's dissuaded from jumping to his death by last-minute appeals from his fans. In this musical, he actually jumps and dies. This is so out of sync with the traditional (though satiric) musical comedy tone of the first act, that we're really unprepared for it—expecting instead a traditional Capra-esque redemption. Though Ann and the "John Does" vow to carry the movement on in his memory, there's not the clear victory of the common man that would give the feel-good finale we think of coming from Capra and a traditional musical comedy. (I'm trying to think of another musical comedy—not a drama like West Side Story—where the protagonist commits suicide. I don't think it's been done, and for good reason.)

It's always risky to try to improve on a classic—even when it means following the source writer's original instincts. Here, I'll side with the test screening audiences who said to let John Doe live. That said, I'd still encourage Sugarman and Gerle to focus Capra's populist theme more tightly and give us an anthem to lift spirits in these times. When they started on this project many years ago, they couldn't have known how much we'd need it and, sadly, how relevant their show would be in 2011.

Meet John Doe runs through April 17, 2011, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets are available through the Stage 773 Box Office at 773-327-5252 or at

Photo: Johnny Knight

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