When you want to belittle a musical, it's traditional to complain that you didn't leave the theater humming the tunes. Right. Do you leave Hamlet reciting the soliloquies?
Nothing in Porchlight Music Theatre's generally solid production of Meet John Doe has the staying power of a song by Porter, Kern, or Loesser. But the score is crafty, affecting, and the best thing about this 2006 musical based on Frank Capra's 1941 film. Andrew Gerle's melodies evoke the show's Depression-era setting without sounding like the pseudo-vintage simulacra that weigh down, say, Grey Gardens. They're cleverly, sometimes unconventionally structured, yet instantly familiar. And, combined with Eddie Sugarman's taut, dramatically astute lyrics, they help advance the story as effectively as anything ever written for the American musical stage.
In Meet John Doe, the songs are the action. Nearly every pivotal moment or consequential choice unfolds in the course of a song. That kind of theatrical immediacy is rare and thrilling. Who cares if you don't remember the tunes later?
Now if Gerle and Sugarman can just make sense of their title character, they might have a show.
Credited to Gerle and Sugarman with "additional story" by Matt August, the book for Meet John Doe closely follows Robert Riskin's original movie script. In fact, several of the strongest scenes are lifted from the screenplay nearly verbatim. Both versions tell the story of plucky reporter Ann Mitchell, who finds herself unemployed (along with half her coworkers) when oil tycoon D.B. Norton buys her New York City newspaper, intending to turn it into a sensationalist tabloid. Desperate to save her job, she fabricates a letter from a "John Doe," who pledges to commit suicide over the corrupt state of contemporary society, and passes it off as the real thing in her final column. The story is such a hit that Mitchell and Norton decide to keep it going. Norton hires an out-of-work minor-league pitcher named John Willoughby to pose as Doe, and Mitchell ghostwrites a daily column for him called "I Protest." He becomes a populist hero and a perfect pawn for Norton's secret, quasi-fascist political schemes.
In Capra's film, what begins as a lark for Willoughby turns into an excruciating moral dilemma. He's venerated as the most honest man in America, and John Doe clubs spring up all over the country, with tens of thousands of people pledging the sort of noble neighborliness Doe outlines in his nationally broadcast speeches. Willoughby knows he's a fraud and a shill but believes in the good that's being done in his phony name. Capra stays focused on Willoughby's efforts to resist the corrupting forces that would turn a campaign for selflessness into a source of personal power and wealth.
Gerle and Sugarman, on the other hand, put the emphasis on Mitchell. Her consuming, self-destructive ambition drives the plot, while Willoughby dawdles on the periphery—at least for the first act. He gets more play in the second, as his fame escalates, but the movement he inspires and the resultant pressures on him are so sketchily dramatized that it's hard to take them seriously. In a way, the skew toward Mitchell is fortunate for Chicago audiences since Elizabeth Lanza is so good in the role. But the ultimate effect is to make Willoughby's grand moral crisis come off as melodrama.
Nearly everyone in director James Beaudry's 15-person cast has the vocal and acting chops to put the show across—and they need them, because Beaudry's lackluster, inattentive direction does them few favors. His blocking is often perfunctory, engaging actors in meaningless business. To depict a busy newsroom, for example, he has them walk semi-mechanically along straight lines and mutter bits of lyric under their breath, which evokes neither a newsroom nor busyness. For two and a half hours, in scenes ranging from a hotel suite to a small-town diner to the Brooklyn Bridge, Beaudry and his designers rarely create a convincing sense of place. And you have to squint hard to see 1931 in the men's suits.
The musical's final scene is a vast improvement over Capra's incongruous ending. (Capra shot five and didn't like any of them.) But like the film, this Meet John Doe ends up feeling too hokey to pack much emotional wallop. Gerle and Sugarman's extraordinary skills may be better served by another story.