Music by Andrew Gerle, lyrics by Eddie Sugarman
Book by Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman
Additional story by Matt August
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Ford’s Theatre in association with Goodspeed Musicals
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Meet John Doe, Frank Capra’s second-tier (though decidedly not third-rate) political comedy-drama is not the best source material for a musical, but Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman have crafted a very good show with book-driven songs and enchanting melodies. There are weak moments and rough edges, but with six great numbers in the first act alone, much here is delicious. I am grateful that Ford Theatre’s production of Eleanor: A Love Story is preserved on a cast recording (I saw that show at least four times), and — weaknesses notwithstanding — I hope that Meet John Doe will be recorded with this cast.
John Doe is a “forgotten man” (“Great Depression”-era lingo for homeless) who expresses his frustration and anger over his prolonged unemployment — and the failure of slimy politicians to address the plight of “the little guy” — in a letter to a columnist of a local newspaper, The New American Times. He vows to jump to his death (from the City Hall roof in the movie; the Brooklyn Bridge in the musical) on Christmas Eve. His plight strikes a chord with the public and the paper goes through five print runs to meet the demand.
The inconvenient truth here is that Doe is the desperate invention of Ann Mitchell, a reporter recently “right-sized” out of her job in a massive layoff orchestrated by D.B. Norton, the newspaper’s new owner. She convinces her editor and publisher that they can perpetuate and capitalize on the ruse by finding someone to be John Doe. Will the cynicism of the media be matched by the gullibility of the public? In spades! Mitchell’s follow-up stories (writing as, or reporting on, John Doe) are picked up nationally by print and broadcast media and John Doe community groups (a veritable army of Doe-nuts) dedicated to the spirit of down home, downright neighborliness spring up across the country. (The several messianic allusions associated with Doe do wear a bit thin.) A rival newspaper smells something fishy and dogs the story; meanwhile, D.B. Norton has designs on exploiting the John Doe movement for his own political ambitions. John Willoughby is the wild card, the ersatz John Doe. A disabled, former baseball player tramping around the country, he comes on board as the Doe-boy in hopes of earning enough money to repair his bum arm and get back in the game. However, he’s malleable only to a point, and his scruples just might be communicable. Willoughby-Mitchell-Norton are the three points on an unlikely romantic triangle. Unlikely because Mitchell’s ambition is definitely not of the ruthless variety, so there is little doubt as to where her affections lie (i.e., with mister tall, dark and suicidal).
As Ann Mitchell, the heart and soul of the story, Heidi Blickenstaff is brilliantly cast. She has the dramatic skill and comedic timing necessary to deliver a role reminiscent of Hildy in His Girl Friday (itself a remake of the The Front Page, the quintessential, cynical newspaper yarn), and she has a glorious voice. Did I mention her singing? We’re talking “marvelous.” From the insistent, save-my-job song (I’m Your Man) to the wistful prayer (I Hope You Can See This) to her late father, to the heartfelt, romantic song (He Threw Me), we are talking “stop the presses” musical theatre moments. In Act II, she leads off the song “Who the Hell…?” (Forgot to Tell My Heart) and it’s almost a disappointment that it segues into a duet with Doe/Willoughby. Blickenstaff is radiant in this role. And the songs written for her character, solo or group, are outstanding save one, the nondescript “Before You,” the penultimate song in the show.
(l to r) Stephen Gregory Smith and Joel Blum (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Guy Paul is a world-weary Richard Connell, editor of The New American Times. It’s a “sad sack” role that he energizes from the fast-paced patter song (Fast Talking) to the laconic, patriotic anthem (Lighthouses). James Moye is a very sympathetic John Willoughby/John Doe, an earnest, highly likeable Everyman, but his character could use a better solo number or two. Patrick Ryan Sullivan has some wicked fun as the manipulative D.B. Norton, particularly in his witty duet with Ann, “Be More.” Stephen Gregory Smith as the double-crossing Beany (imagine Jimmy Olsen going over to the Dark Side) gives a standout performance throughout, and dazzles in his cynical duet, “Money Talks,” with the Colonel (Joel Blum).
The show has a fine ensemble to support the lead characters. As an assembly of “average Joe’s,” they have a beautiful a cappella song, “Thank You,” to convey how deeply John Doe has touched their lives.
The show needs a stronger opening and finish to Act I, and Act II musically does not live up to the expectations established in the first act — that old staple, the 11 o’clock number, seems to be missing. But like Floyd Collins and Parade, Meet John Doe pokes fun of the sordid underbelly of what passes for the mainstream press and delivers many wonderful and memorable musical moments in the process.
(Running Time: 2:20 with 1 intermission) Meet John Doe is playing now through April 29th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets: $39 – $52. To order, call 202 397-7328 or order online.
Click here to listen to our podcast with composers Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman