Classic Failings

With 'Meet John Doe,' a talented ensemble adds up to a production that's less than the sum of its parts

by Tim Plant
Published on April 5, 2007, 12:00am | Comments

How is it that two strong leads, a romantic love story and a few catchy musical numbers combine to make such a mediocre production? However it happens, it's certainly the case with Meet John Doe, based on the classic 1941 Frank Capra film of the same title, making its world premiere at Ford's Theatre.

A Depression-era period piece, the musical captures the attempts of a couple of ordinary citizens who try to rally the people and instill hope in the masses. Ann Mitchell (Heidi Blickenstaff), desperate to save her job as a newspaper columnist, creates a fictitious everyman who, fed up with the government, declares he will throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge on Christmas Eve in protest. Once John Doe's letter captures the hearts of New Yorkers, Mitchell and her editor (Guy Paul) must find a face to go with their words. Enter John Willoughby (the well-cast James Moye), a down-on-his-luck baseball player who is so All-American he probably ''poops apple pie.'' That's the type of wit you get in this one.


Doe Eyed: The cast in full protest
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Of course, what begins as a gimmick to save a job becomes a national movement of ''John Does'' across the country. There must be a villain somewhere -- cue newspaper publisher D.B. Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) who wants to exploit the movement for his own political gain. Now Ann must decide what's truly important to her: power or love.

Blickenstaff is Meet John Doe's biggest asset, and is reason alone to see the show. She hits every note with strength and precision, taking the audience from admiring Ann's spunk to cursing her indecisiveness between what she thinks she must do and what her heart wants her to do. In the end, we're forced to remain by Ann's side and support her because Blickenstaff is so compelling. Blickenstaff's solos are consistently the best numbers -- in part due to her performance and in part because her songs have the wittiest lyrics.

So what is it that doesn't work? The problem is epitomized in the ensemble. Each cast member featured gives a fine individual performance. But when performing their big numbers together, the cacophony of disharmonious sounds are cringe-worthy. The sum is not equal to the quality of the individual parts.

It feels as if the two creators -- composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman -- are still sitting in the back of the theater saying, ''This number is good, this one needs work, and this one should be cut altogether.'' Unfortunately, it feels like they're just finishing up with the first act and haven't even begun fine-tuning the second.

Meet John Doe
starstar
To April 29
Ford's Theatre
511 10th St. NW
$25-$52
202-397-7328
www.fordstheatre.org

A few of the opening numbers are terrific, including Ann's ''I'm Your Man'' and ''I Hope You Can See This.'' Others, such as ''Page Eight at the Top / Fast Talking'' fall prey to the curse of the ensemble and halt the show's initial momentum. Particular mention must be made of the song ''Lighthouse,'' a patriotic homage to First Amendment rights. It's an abomination from the first note to the last. Cover your ears and hum loudly during this song and your enjoyment of the show will increase exponentially.

Director Eric Schaeffer has done the very best he can with a highly-flawed musical. The casting is perfect, the minimal staging is used to great effect, and the costumes do a fantastic job at capturing the period. Unfortunately, all of their efforts are poured into a vessel that simply cannot hold its own. Sadly, this is one John Doe that should remain unknown.