Frank Capra’s 1941 film “Meet John Doe” endures as a homespun American fantasy even though it glorified the naivete of a post Depression-era populace. Collaborators Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman were inspired by the everyman saga’s timeless appeal, the result of which is an earnest musical blessed with an occasionally soaring score but hampered by a weighty book and a few too many melodramatic moments.
Kudos to the Ford’s management for rolling the dice on this world preem, the first big project for relative unknowns Gerle and Sugarman, and entrusting it to the seasoned hands of Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer. The production is mounted in association with Goodspeed Musicals, which staged a low-key tryout last November at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester, Conn., sans critics. The musical has since been reworked by Schaeffer, who was unavailable to direct the earlier production.
The film earned its status chiefly through the stellar performances of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck as the unexpected leaders of a national grassroots campaign for decency. Stanwyck played the plucky journalist who, upon learning she had just been pinkslipped by the new owner of her New York City newspaper, fabricates in her final column a letter written by “John Doe,” threatening suicide over unemployment and slimy politics. Reaction to the letter prompts the paper to hire a public face for the crusade, an out-of-work baseball player (Cooper) who quickly becomes an icon for the oppressed.
Gerle and Sugarman clearly confront a sizable challenge and a sure-fire learning experience here. While tyranny is always in style, and even journalistic fabrications sadly remain in vogue, there is otherwise nothing contemporary in this emphatically dark, plot-driven piece about gangster-era manipulation. So they have taken the obvious course, replicating the black-and-white film’s sobering feel at every turn. Few attempts are made to lighten the heavy mood, and there are no real dance numbers. In short, “Chicago” it ain’t.
From the steely grays of Derek McLane’s industrial set and Alejo Vietti’s costumes to composer Gerle’s occasional use of minor keys, “Doe” could strip the holiday mood from any tourist who gamely wanders into Ford’s. Schaeffer’s direction reinforces the tone straight through to the climactic final scene — one that differs dramatically from the ending selected by filmmaker Capra.
Yet there’s a lot to like in this production, starting with a solid cast of veteran thesps that includes Heidi Blickenstaff as the feisty reporter, James Moye as the handsome ball player and Patrick Ryan Sullivan as calculating tycoon D.B. Norton. Joel Blum plays the suspicious hobo sidekick known as the Colonel (Walter Brennan’s role in the film), while Guy Paul is the crusty newspaper editor.
The ensemble copes gallantly with a frenetically busy plot that, ending aside, hews close to the original. Several characters from the film are omitted, the love interest between the two ideologues is heightened, and the threatened suicide spot has been shifted from city hall to the Brooklyn Bridge, among other modifications. The many scene changes are accommodated within McLane’s sparse and serviceable set, framed by the steel gears of a printing press.
Wedging musical numbers fluidly into the mix is no easy task, but Schaeffer and Karma Camp, which did the musical staging, score admirably. Act one’s “Perfect Days” is among the highlights, while act two is lifted by “Who the Hell …?,” sung by Moye and Blickenstaff, and the cappella chorus number “Thank You.” Less successful is the nondescript “Money Talks” and occasional sophomoric lyrics such as “I’m gonna last forever, like syphilis.” The enjoyably fast-paced number “Page Eight at the Top,” would work better if the lyrics could be better understood.
Some might argue that the film script was followed a bit too closely. Indeed, the plot churns at such breakneck speed that some critical elements are given short shrift, such as a sensitive moment in which the reporter draws inspiration from her late father’s diary. Another fixable problem is a lapse into self importance as larger-than-life characters gear up for the act two’s climactic scenes. But on balance, “John Doe’s” visit to Ford’s is a commendable event for the landmark venue.