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Meet John Doe

Okay, I'm going to try and show a little restraint because, after all, I only saw a staged reading in its fledgling state, but Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman's Meet John Doe is the kind of show that puts a big fat smile on my face and makes me think "Yeah, that's why I love musicals." You'll find nothing new or innovative in their adaptation of the same-named 1941 Frank Capra-directed flick, just a solid use of the standard formula of a well-crafted musical featuring crackling dialogue and lyrics and a score infused with enough cool jazz to have the gang at Birdland bobbing their heads for weeks.

It's a gritty New York City in 1931 and with America seriously stinging from The Great Depression, good people will sometimes do the wrong things for the right reasons. Just handed a pink slip because her newspaper column is too "lavender and lace", journalist gal Ann Mitchell (a fiercely compelling Donna Lynne Champlin in a role that couldn't fit her more perfectly if it were made of melted wax and she were dipped in a vat of it) decides to go out with a bang and vents her frustration by submitting a fake letter from a "John Doe" expressing his despair at how those in power have forgotten the little guy and promising to end his sorrow by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge on Christmas Eve. But when the paper hits the street, John Doe's letter hits New York in the heart. The public understands his despair because they feel it themselves. They want to know more about John Doe.

Ann uses the public interest to get her job back, ready to create more scoops about John Doe for as long as the fascination lasts. But they need a face to go with the name. Enter John Willoughby (a darkly Gary Cooper-ish and sweet-voiced Michael Halling), a former minor-league pitcher whose career ended with an elbow injury and is now living on the streets hand-to-mouth. He agrees to have his photo used and lets Ann pick his brain for ideas to be written up as columns direct from the mouth of John Doe in exchange for food and shelter and a salary that could help him get surgery that might revitalize his baseball career. John Doe becomes a spokesman for the unemployed who just want a chance to earn a decent living and his popularity soon becomes a national phenomenon. And, to paraphrase a lyric, although Ann and John realize that what they're doing isn't completely honest, they also know it's helping to lift the spirit of the whole damn country.

But there are also bad people who do good things for the wrong reasons, and complications arise when it turns out that the publisher who bankrolled the John Doe craze (a nicely oily Patrick Ryan Sullivan) plans to use his everyman to advance his own political agenda. Romantic complications also arise when John finds himself falling for the dame who's giving him a chance for a new life while Ann is busy falling for the fictional guy she's created. "I saw her first.", John complains to a photo of himself as her heartthrob.

Played by a four piece combo, the score (music by Gerle and lyrics by Sugarman, who co-authored the book) begins by relying on jazz syncopation and hard-boiled sentiments to depict Act I scenes in 1930's Manhattan. In the opening chorus, "Can't Read the Paper Anymore", struggling New Yorkers complain "Every day is a slap in the face". Champlin's knock-out solo "I'm Your Man" has her pleading for her job by boasting of "newspaper ink in her veins". In a cooler moment, Sullivan begins seducing her to his side by subtly crooning the double-edged "I see a little bit of me in you."

But as the John Doe message starts touching the nation, the score branches out into more heartfelt lyrics propelled by simple-rhythmed ballads, an endearing hymn and a soaring final anthem, highlighted by Guy Paul's (as Ann's editor) quietly stirring rendition of "Lighthouses", with words that reflect on his character's service in The Great War and how it influenced his view of America.

Matt August's direction and Casey Hushion's choreography are simple, but effective for this staged reading, as is Herrick Goldman's lighting design. It would be easy to envision Meet John Doe on Broadway, except for the fact that there's no place in the story for hydraulics, flying or any other sort of spectacle. No, the authors were too busy creating an uplifting morality fairy tale with characters you can care about, colorful language and score you can feel like the beats of the city.

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From This Author Michael Dale