'John Doe' Makes for Some Names to Remember

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A promising American musical isn't born every minute. Heck, whole years go by without anything approximating the arrival of a melodious blessed event. So what is one to make of the extremely interesting new show getting a first major exposure at -- of all places -- Ford's Theatre?

The musical is "Meet John Doe," a mostly faithful adaptation of Frank Capra's 1941 film about a media-fabricated hero who becomes the genuine article. Treated to a slick, skillful staging by Eric Schaeffer, the work is a rewarding platform for a pair of talented young songwriters and a knockout of a leading lady named Heidi Blickenstaff.

Composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman, who also collaborated on the show's book, conjure in this populist musical fable a Depression-era America as desperate for a decent public man as it is for a buck. The nation falls hard for demure John Doe, who becomes a sensation after declaring that in protest of the social ills besetting average Americans, he will throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge.

The wrinkle, of course, is that John Doe doesn't exist, his suicide threat having been invented by Blickenstaff's Ann, a New York newspaper reporter desperate to save her job. (Gosh, imagine that!) Capitalizing on the passionate public response, she convinces her paper that it must hire a man to play him, and play out the fraud. The result is the story of a hoax so profound that an entire country of restive John Does wills the ruse to be true.

On the nervy shoulders of Ann, the plot must be carried, and Blickenstaff is more than up to it. She's a dynamite successor to the movie's Barbara Stanwyck: It's a star performance, in fact. There's an effortless kind of kick to Blickenstaff's readings of Ann's sharp-elbowed lines. And she can sing, to boot.

Still, it's hard to see at first how Capra's heavy-handed fairy tale might turn into anything but musical mush. (The movie's bizarrely hopeful ending seems tailored to an audience flummoxed by downbeat times.) Sugarman and Gerle smartly jettison that soggy conclusion, fashioning a radically different one. The change sharpens the point for our own downbeat times, so that "Meet John Doe" asks a question that could preoccupy a season of "Meet the Press": What leader, in an age of ever more rampant obfuscation, has the courage to live up to his or her most solemn oaths?

Yes, the mind-set is a little strange: a nation looking up to a man who vows to kill himself. But it occurs in a society whose dreams have been shuttered like so many empty shops. And faith has shifted, from the institutions that have let the people down to a Christlike loner who has vowed to sacrifice even more than they have.

Through the parable of John Doe (portrayed solidly here by square-jawed James Moye), Gerle and Sugarman play with the notion of what's in a nation's soul. In "Lighthouses," a hard-bitten editor, assayed incisively by the sterling Guy Paul, sings of his service in World War I alongside his father. The lyrics, inspired by a speech from the movie, speak of such towering figures as Washington and Jefferson and the need for moral navigators "in a foggy world."

The scene is followed by one in which a group of money men -- led by the duplicitous publisher (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) who bankrolls the mushrooming John Doe crusade -- sings to another vision of America. These rich men also invoke Washington and Jefferson. But to the list of inspirational Americans they cynically add names that have less to do with patriotism than with personal aggrandizement: Vanderbilt. Carnegie.

This being Capra's world, we know "Meet John Doe's" sympathies are not with these sugar daddies. Far less transparent than its politics, however, is its title character. This is something of a problem for the musical, which does not give us sufficient reason to warm up to John Doe, to help us understand the character of the man.

In the movie, John Doe, ne John Willoughby, was played by a bona fide matinee idol, Gary Cooper, and it was easy to take his wholesomeness as an article of faith. On the stage, we need to be provided with a little more emotional texture, so that we see why he is emboldened to accept this fraudulent mantle. Gerle and Sugarman allot Doe only a single song in Act 1 -- about his love of baseball. It's a bit thin for a man with the challenges Doe faces in Act 2; both character and actor feel shortchanged.

The country that embraces John Doe is more fervently evoked; you're meant, it seems, to appreciate him chiefly through his fans' eyes. The effect is achieved excellently in "Thank You," in which ordinary folk in a New Jersey town attribute to him powers and accomplishments that reveal more about their need to believe in him than anything about Doe. The moving number is sung a cappella, as if a spiritual.

A few songs -- like "Money Talks," a duet for Doe's sidekick (Joel Blum) and a double-dealing reporter (Stephen Gregory Smith) -- seem a little too showbizzy and thus feel a bit out of place. By and large, though, the score, ably served by Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations -- a 10-piece band sits on a bridge over the stage -- is filled with clever lyrics and bright and supple melodies.

Schaeffer's designers have worked wonders with the troublesome Ford's stage. The motif is black-and-white, after the Capra film: The fine, abstracted set by Derek McLane places us in a gritty, wheel-grinding realm of 20th-century American commerce. Alejo Vietti's costumes are apportioned in the requisite amounts of stylishness and drabness, and sound designer David Budries has dealt admirably with some of the acoustical problems that have afflicted other Ford's productions.

Ford's, too, deserves applause for taking a chance on this material. Some other major companies in town seem content these days to feast on well-cooked chestnuts. Theatergoers can only hope that this historic theater and its ambitious management will set off on another adventure of this magnitude soon.

Meet John Doe, music by Andrew Gerle, lyrics by Eddie Sugarman, book by Gerle and Sugarman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Lighting, Rui Rita; fight director, David Leong; musical staging, Karma Camp. With Christopher Bloch, Daniel Cohen, Eleasha Gamble, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Michael Bunce, Amy McWilliams, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Channez McQuay, Suzanne Briar, Danielle Eden. About 2 1/2 hours. Through April 29 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit http://www.fordstheatre.org.

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