You’d expect the creators of a musical called Meet John Doe to handle character introductions briskly, and at Ford’s Theatre, they mostly do. Protagonists no sooner stride into this tunefully dark reincarnation of Frank Capra’s populist melodrama than they’re declaring themselves, either by word or deed.
Meet D.B. Norton, an unprincipled publisher who praises the struggling newspaper he’s bought even as he’s crumpling a copy in his fist and tossing it behind him. Meet Ann Mitchell, a wisecracking, all-but-unflappable reporter whose response to being pink-slipped is a feisty patter song (“My coffee cup has lipstick stains/But brother, I’m your man”). Meet toadying Beany, who cringes as he flatters, and overworked Connell, who sings the way he edits (at a gallop). Meet the Colonel, a bum who expounds the wisdom of poverty in a rasp that’s pure common sense. Meet, in short, a whole stageful of characters who feel iconically Capra-esque virtually the second a spotlight hits them.
You’ll notice, though, that I’ve left out the title character. Meet John Doe, a sentimental, Depression-era saga of American individualism, still centers on a homeless ballplayer who is transformed by a newspaper’s circulation-boosting stunt into the titular Everyman. But as reconceived with bouncy tunes by Andrew Gerle, snappy lyrics by Eddie Sugarman, and an adaptation of the movie’s script credited to both of them, the musical takes forever to bring its leading man into focus. Instead it lingers for much of its robust first act with amusing but marginal characters, encouraging them to hijack the story with jauntily entertaining ditties, essentially sidelining the hero. The authors have come up with some nifty specialty numbers, including an invigoratingly rabid debate about capitalism called “Money Talks.” But as they chronicle the machinations involved in foisting a fictional John Doe on an all-too-gullible public, the man himself remains vague, and the inspirational, sentiment that needs to lie at the heart of things if we’re to feel queasy about the lies used to promote it starts to seem merely an afterthought.
This is not, I suspect, the fault of the actor who’s stepped confidently into Gary Cooper’s shoes. James Moye’s easygoing ballplayer is pleasantly malleable—persuasive as the sort of man who might agree to disappear inside a fictional character. The newspaper hires him to impersonate a figure who’s captured the public’s fancy: the author of a bogus suicide note that Ann (Heidi Blickenstaff) has fabricated in an attempt to keep her newspaper column afloat. Her fictional John Doe is an idealist so frustrated by years of unemployment that he threatens to leap in protest from the Brooklyn Bridge, and once the ballplayer agrees to take on his persona, there’s considerable tension between his own brand of idealism and the words Ann scripts for him. Put this John Doe impersonator in front of an audience, and he turns out to be fond of big gestures himself.
On-screen, the moment when all this comes together is a radio speech that amounts to Capra-corn in all its glory—folk wisdom extolling the little guys who froze with Washington at Valley Forge, sailed with Columbus to the new world, and retreated from Moscow with Napoleon. It champions teamwork, brotherly love, and Christmas cheer, and I’m guessing that the musical’s creative team decided that it was so overripe that enhancing it with soaring strings would drown their whole enterprise in sugar. So instead, they close their first act with a swelling chorale titled “He Speaks to Me” in which what John Doe is saying gets overtaken and subsumed by what the public thinks about what he’s saying. The melody still soars, but by midsong, Doe is mouthing Capra’s platitudes silently as the Doe-nuts cheer him.
It’s a clever but ultimately self-defeating tactic, because it’s all about a man we still haven’t gotten to know very well and won’t until he’s allowed to express himself clearly. Eric Schaeffer’s staging surrounds Doe with enough thrusting signs and unfurling banners to suggest a floating political convention, but somehow the whole “the public thinks this guy’s going to commit suicide and he just might” thing gets lost in the shuffle. When it resurfaces after intermission, as it must for the ending to make dramatic sense, it’s almost startling to be reminded that there’s actually something at stake in the story. (Capra, incidentally, shot four alternatives to the ending the studio went with, and felt he never really got it right. Gerle and Sugarman evidently agree with him, because they’ve come up with a fifth alternative—one that’s unsatisfying in a somewhat more modern way.)
Script problems aside, Ford’s Theatre stages the show extravagantly. Derek McLane has come up with a brooding, modernist, society-as-machine design scheme—my companion dubbed it “Sweeney-opolis”—with soaring girders, interlocking gears, and a bandstand on high, every inch painted black or gray. Alejo Vietti’s elegant, Depression-era fashions also subscribe to that color scheme. Except for the leading lady’s scarlet lipstick, and a brief blast of green and magenta in Rui Rita’s lighting at the top of Act Two, the show has been conceived as if it were a black-and-white motion picture—altogether appropriate for a show that means to explore moral gray areas.
Schaeffer’s clean, brisk staging finds apt parallels for Capra’s no-nonsense film techniques, moving crowds around in ways that suggest screen montages and using lighting to mimic cinematic wipes and dissolves. Karma Camp’s musical staging is similarly rife with ’40s movie touches, heads tossed until curls turn into waves, heels kicked high on every exit. Jonathan Tunick’s full-bodied orchestrations lend a lush movie-score feel to what’s essentially a Broadway sound.
And the performers take their cues from that vigorous aesthetic. Guy Paul’s newspaper editor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s traitorous assistant are all about precision and speed, Joel Blum’s sarcastic Colonel possesses the soul of a vaudeville comic, Patrick Ryan Sullivan’s publisher grabs the oily, fat-cat capitalist concession with both hands. When the title character finally asserts himself, Moye gives us a man who’s matter-of-fact whether contemplating romance or suicide. And Blickenstaff’s vibrant, full-voiced Ann is as sharp-tongued and foursquare as any heroine in the Barbara Stanwyck mold, even if she’s being made to fight an uphill battle in terms of likability. The movie script was far kinder to her character, having Ann abandon her journalistic scruples to support her mother and siblings, where the musical settles for making her little more than an ambitious careerist. Wisecracks tended to be gentler back then, too. Though it’s been a while since I saw Capra’s film, I’m pretty sure Ann’s line upon meeting John wasn’t “What could be more American? I bet he poops apple pie.”
Happily (or maybe as compensation?) Gerle and Sugarman do provide Ann with the best of their catchy ballads—a paean to fatherly affection called “I Hope You Can See This,” and the torchy “Who the Hell (Forgot to Tell My Heart)”—lilting anthems of the sort you don’t hear much in musicals of recent vintage. A couple of songs, of course, can’t make a sweetheart of a gal who spends most of her time lying to and manipulating a man she claims to love, but they can give her something to belt to the rafters, and that’s just what Blickenstaff does.