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: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

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