Thursday November 23rd 2017

“Meet John Doe”- The Musical

recommended   Porchlight Theatre seems to have a love affair with the movies of Frank Capra. Over the years they have done the musical version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and now they are presenting the Midwest Premiere of “Meet John Doe” with music by Andrew Gerle and lyrics by Eddie Sugarman with some additional story by Matt August. Note:Messrs. Gerle and Sugarman are VERY young and based on what I saw tonight very talented. The movie that this show is based on is an old classic that starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyckand tells  the story of a newspaperwoman, Ann Mitchell ( a powerful performance by the lovely Elizabeth Lanza who has a voice made for musical comedy) who upon losing her job due to the poor economy of  1932, writes a letter to her column from a “John Doe” who is fed up withthe politics and economy and announces that on Christmas Eve, he will jump to his death from the Brooklyn Bridge. And that is what brings America to its feet.

The editor of the paper, Cornell ( the always reliable Jim Sherman) seeing the paper sell more copies due to the letter brings Ann back on board to keep this story alive, even though he knows it is a hoax and only was done to keep her working. John Doe sells papers and so they plan to find a someone to pretend to be John Doe and figure that when the time is up, they will find a way to get out of the creation of this character. Many people come to the newspaper office claiming to be John Doe, looking for some type of work and Ann picks John Willoughby ( a strong performance by Karl Hamilton, who, as the play progresses, starts to truly sound and behave as Cooper did in the film) a down on his luck baseball player who has arm problems. He becomes her “John Doe” and she his ghost writer and America eats it up. He expresses what they are feeling in a very “down home” realistic way and gives the John Does of this country a reason to hope for a better future. Strange that they would premiere this show at a time when we need this type of hope as we as a country have high unemployment and a major recession which of course did not compare to the Great Depression, but to the average “John Doe” who is out of work and cannot meet his bills, it might as well be the same. Perhaps that was the intent- to open our eyes to the fact that we need to work with each other and be there for those in need!

As they work hand in hand to sell papers and give the population hope for a better tomorrow, the owner of the newspaper, who is in on the hoax, decides that he can use this man to build a third party for him and his cronies- the John Doe party and with all the average Americans who adore this man, can take over the Presidency and make America his! During their travels Ann falls in love with her John Doe and the real man, John Willoughby as does he with her and after all is said and done, they must decide what they must do with their creation for both them and for the country.

While, from my memory ( the movie was back in 1941), it seems they follow pretty close to what Capra offered. I do not recall  John’s sidekick, the  Colonel ( a dynamic and hysterical character played by Rus Rainear, who proves over and over that comedy is where he shines- other theater companies should take note and find plays to use his expertise at getting laughs), but I do recall Norton, the owner of the paper who is greedy and selfish( layed by Mick Weber, who is pretty good at playing “bad guys”, but for some reason seemed a bit stiff in this character- I hope it was just opening night, because he is a solid actor) and spiteful. he also wants Ann, but when  he finds that she will not help him withhis plans, he sets out to destroy them both.

To take a movie and make a play out of it is not an easy task- to make a musical is even harder, but  Porchlight under the Artistic ledership of  L. Walter Stearns and the Musical director Eugene Dizon and director/choreographer James Beaudry, they pull it off. It is a pity that they have to work in a small venue with limited stage space as this could be a much more massive production. Beaudry finds a way to work within the limitations of the stage area and the set ( Ian Zywica), Lighting ( Mac Vaughey) and costuming by Elizabeth Powell Wislar make it all work. The sound has some problems as only the leads are miked and in some cases, the orchestra does outshine the singers. Budgets being what they are for small troupes, I understand this and since the production, overall , is so solid, I don’t think that this was a handicap and I am sure that Eugene will find a way to overcome this problem as small as it is as he is a perfectionist! 

“Meet John Doe” has some very nice songs, although nothing you will leave the theater humming, but songs like  “The New American Times”,, “Money Talks”, “I Feel Like A Man Again” and “I’M Your Man” all add to the telling of the story and since this is a story with music, I for one, prefer that the music be a part of the story and not just a song that you can take out of context and do a single of. I do want to mention that the ensemble for thi show, although small in numbers is huge in talent and as you know, I am of the feeling that the ensemble can make or break the overall productions, so, thanks to: Eli Branson,Sean Effinger-Dean,Harmony France, Elizabeth Gray, Kelly Hackett, Elizabeth Haley,Matthew Keffer, Travis Porchia,Michael Reyes and Pavi Proczko- nice job!

John will continue at Porchlight at  Stage 773 ( formerly The Theatre Building) located at 1225 West Belmont through  April 17th  with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets  are $38 ( discounts for seniors and students as well as groups) and can be purchased at the box office , by phone at 773-327-5252  or at www.stage773.c0m

Parking is available on the street, some metered, some not and Cooper’s Restaurant, directly across the street has parking as well. I suggest that you try them for a before dinner bite as they have some great “bar food” treats perfect for before the theater.

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