Review: Meet John Doe (Porchlight Musical Theatre)

     
     

‘John Doe’ Gets the Job Half Done

     
     

MJD--Jim Sherman (Connell) and Sean Effinger-Dean (Beany)

  
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Meet John Doe
  
Music/Book by Andrew Gerle
Lyrics/Book by
Eddie Sugarman
Directed/Choreographed by
James Beaudry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nothing sets the tone for Porchlight Music Theatre’s Meet John Doe like its foreboding, expressionist set design (Ian Zywica). Stage right, a bold graphic sticks out from a wall of newsprint: “JOBLESS MEN KEEP MOVING–We can’t take care of our own.” Now, if that doesn’t lock and load your head for a Depression Era period piece, nothing else will. Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman’s (lyrics) musical follows through with ample period perfection–from driven pace, to musical style, to its tough and cocky dialogue. James Beaudry’s direction accents the production’s expressionistic edge, framing the action, whether in crowd scenes or backroom MJD--Karl Hamilton (John Doe) and Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell)conferences, so that the show’s language hits right between the eyes about our own desperate political and economic plight. Fabricated news stories, populist heroes spun out of thin air, media manipulation of the masses by cynical moguls–and a down and out populace looking for any flicker of hope to lead them. Everything old is new again.

Porchlight could not have picked a timelier musical. In some ways, it contains improvements on Frank Capra’s 1941 film. For one, the musical’s Ann Mitchell (Elizabeth Lanza) is a much tougher, moxie-er, foxier newshound than her original film version played by Barbara Stanwyck. Given the pink slip during her newspaper’s takeover and transition to the New American Times, Ann submits her final column with a fake letter from “John Doe”—a man so sickened by the current economic downturn he threatens to commit suicide in protest by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Lanza has the voice, the sass and the legs to pull off her role and she’s not afraid to use them—a point she more than drives home with the song “I’m Your Man.”

Once circulation jumps in response to the letter, Ann restores her job by devising a whole series of columns based on John Doe. Out of a mass of jobless men, she and her world-weary editor, Connell (Jim Sherman), pick out a former bush league ball player to be their John Doe (Karl Hamilton). Hamilton definitely brings that Everyman vibe that they—and we–go for, but it’s his rich tenor voice that awakens sympathy and warmth to John Doe’s reintegration into showered, shaved and employed life once more, with “I Feel Like a Man Again.”

Unfortunately, for all the attention it has gained at Ford’s Theatre in 2007 with seven Helen Hayes nominations and with the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, Meet John Doe still feels half finished. The first act is a beauty. Beaudry’s direction builds its tension with consummate skill and his taut cast carves its dramatic arc in expressionist stone. From the opening moments, where the terror every newsman has for his job is quite palpable – to John Doe’s escape from his first public speech – the first act is non-stop, smart and tough entertainment. In between, Lanza and Hamilton solidly sketch the growing relationship between Ann and John, while John’s hobo friend, the Colonel (Rus Rainear), adds much needed salt to the proceedings. Finally, even with a limited voice, Mick Weber gives us a smooth MJD--Elizabeth Lanza as Ann Mitchelland seductive menace as D.B. Norton, who sits atop of his new newspaper like an American Silvio Berlusconi, ready to manipulate John Doe’s image to further his political ambitions.

It’s the second act that doesn’t know where to go with this build-up. In part, this has to do with over-reliance on Capra’s plot.  In other sections, however, Gerle and Sugarman’s book diverges from it counter-intuitively. Capra himself changed the ending to his film five times before he settled on its own muddled and unsatisfactory finish. Suffice it to say that suicide, far from being painless, is actually a downer, whether for a musical’s uplifting final moments or for a real-life social movement. Therefore, John Doe’s final self-sacrificing act might make psychological sense for the character, but not for the unity of the crowd after he does it. Act Two contains choice moments, like Connell’s gorgeous reminiscence of his WWI army service with “Lighthouses” or the verbal hits John Doe delivers against Norton’s cadre of privileged, slime-ball cronies. But on the whole, it’s rewrite time once again for this plotline. Time once again for John Doe to re-create himself—let’s hope for his sake, and ours–that that he gets it right.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

MJD--Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell) and Jim Sherman (Connell)

All photos by Johnny Knight

           
           

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REVIEW: The Regulars (Hobo Junction Productions)

More regular than epic

 

Regulars_Complete_Cast

 
Hobo Junction Productions presents
 
The Regulars
 
Written and directed by Josh Zagoren
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 13th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The Regulars, an epic rock musical comedy about waiters is a new rock musical-comedy about, well, waiters, presented by Hobo Junction Productions. The audience is presented with the following warning tucked neatly inside their programs, "Caution: This production is meant to strictly Regulars_Hank_Molly make you laugh. We are not trying to make a comment on the human condition. We do comedies…and that’s what they are meant to do… make you laugh." What follows is an hour and fifteen minute dissertation on the human condition. Love, sex, violence and work are major themes in The Regulars, and although it is a musical farce, it is certainly a comment on life as a working, single white person in present day America.

The Regulars opens on a motley crew of waiters in the break room of a chain steakhouse. They spit venom at one another, and meet the new girl Molly (Danelle Wildermuth), who the women hate but the men amorously adore.  With their tough-as-nails demeanor and utter contempt for their job, the crew tries to prepare Molly for the hellish work night she has ahead of her. But nothing can prepare her for the mini-Vietnam that is dinner service at Laconia Steakhouse. The waiters come to the break room with increasingly stained and tattered clothes, and everything that can go wrong does; they run out of sugar and ketchup and secret shoppers from corporate show up.

With paper-thin characters and less-than earth-shattering plot points, writer/director Josh Zagoren has created a show that has no choice but to have absolutely hilarious scenes and dialogue. Unfortunately, The Regulars falls flat. While there are funny moments, Zagoren doesn’t push the envelope far enough. The audience is teased with the promise of a kinky new girl/stock boy love affair, but is given little more than a double entendre about a long rubber hose. You don’t need raunch for comedy, but if a writer puts something dirty or subversive out there, Chicago audiences are sophisticated enough to want to see it pay off. Comedy is in no short supply here in Chicago, which means, if a show claims to exist for the sole purpose of being funny, it had better be really, really funny, which unfortunately The Regulars is not.

     
Regulars_Molly_Anthony Regulars_Simon_Molly_Autumn

There are of course, amusing elements within the production. The funniest character is the sleazy newly-promoted headwaiter Simon, played by the subtly weird and awesome Bryan Campbell. Campbell plays the part with a bizarre innocence, making Simon’s cheesy moves easy to watch. Campbell also has one of the funnier songs, a 1950’s-style rock ode to a mediocre bar the crew goes to after work, “The Billy Bar.” Campbell, like the rest of the cast has a strong singing voice, stronger than the voices you’ll hear in a traditional comedy show in Chicago. Clara Kessler as Denise, the militaristic manager has the strongest voice in the cast, and a nice levity in her performance.

Sadly, levity isn’t enough to hang one’s hat on, despite The Regulars being a competently structured farce, with fun music and gifted actors. And Josh Zagoren is a talented writer and director – way too talented to write a show off as being comedy for comedy’s sake. Every successful comedy is a comment on the human condition, whether it admits it or not. There is a lot of rage underlying this piece about low-income workers in an overbearing job, and if Zagoren trusted himself enough to nurture that a little more, this could be a really funny play. Unfortunately, comedy for comedy’s sake doesn’t stand a chance of being more than cute, and in this town, just being cute doesn’t cut it.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Run time is approximately one hour with no intermission.

WHERE: Apollo Theater * 2540 North Lincoln Avenue.  Running Dates: May 7th thru June 13th – Fri. and Sat. @ 8:00 p.m & Sun @ 3:00 pm. Tickets: $15.00 – Call (773) 935-6100 or Purchase online at www.ticketmaster.com


Regulars_Anthony_Autumn CAST: Jake Autizen as Bear, Eli Branson as Anthony, Madeline Chilese as Autumn, Derek Elstro as Hank, Danelle Wildermuth as Molly, Ashley Wint as Sunny, Carla Kessler as Denise, Bryan Campbell as Simon, Cyra K. Polizzi as Ana the Bus Girl

CREW:
Playwright – Josh Zagoren
Music by – Josh Zagoren & Dan Krall
Music Orchestrated by – Joe Griffin & Mike Przygoda
Director – Josh Zagoren
Stage Manager – Amy Hopkins
Tech Director – Amy Hopkins
Costume Designer – Janna Weddle
Set Designer – Amy Hopkins
Lighting Designer – Amy Hopkins