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: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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Review: Porchlight’s “Miracle on 34th Street”

A Retro Christmas Miracle

 

Porchlight Music Theatre presents:

Miracle on 34th Street

Adapted by Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder, Sill Severin and John Vreeke

Story by Valentine Davies
Screenplay by George Seaton
directed by
L. Walter Stearns
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

MIRACLE ON 34th STREET--Santa and Susan I have to admit to a bit of “Scrooge-ism” when it comes to the holiday season in America. The commercials, the billboards, the store windows dressed in fiberglass snow and plaid carolers when I am still finishing Halloween candy stuffed in the bottom desk drawer- you get the idea. I managed to get into the spirit in spite of myself. I got a visit from a little angel in the form of my niece Alexandria. She is a very precocious seven years old who likes spiders. Porchlight Theatre’s publicity for Miracle on 34th Street stated that this was the perfect first theater experience for children and would become a holiday tradition. I am happy to say that the publicity was right.

This production of Miracle on 34th Street is from the Porchlight Music Theatre Company. They are known for classic productions as well as new interpretations of musicals. This is already a classic film and now it has been excellently translated to the stage. The moment that Kris Kringle’s sleigh appears on the stage is when the magic begins. A veritable toyland pops out of Santa’s big red sack and performs to start the play. We are then told that this Santa is a lucky replacement for the other guy who showed up drunk. The twist is that this Santa believes that he is the real thing. It is a tale that we all know from afternoons around the television or at the repertory movie house.

Christa Buck plays the cynical 1940’s career woman Doris Walker. She is all business and doesn’t have time for the fantasy that is Christmas. She also has little patience for the complications of romance that shows up in the form of Fred Gailey played by Karl Hamilton. They both seem to have stepped out of a Technicolor production. The entire cast is a step back in time and that is perfect for this production. The cynicism of Doris Walker and her daughter Susan is born out of divorce and abandonment issues. That is my modern interpretation but the portrayals are embodied with the post-war innocence of the 1940’s. Somehow everything works out in America if you only believe. It’s a beautiful idea whose time is coming around again. The part of Susan Walker is played by Laney Kraus-Taddeo. She is another talented product of the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. Ms. Kraus-Taddeo doesn’t hit any false notes or project any of the treacle that is the risk of any child actors. All of the children in this production are a delight to watch. The play makes room for a child in the audience to talk to Santa on stage. It was a funny moment with an untrained participant who asked for Christmas lipstick. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that is but Jim Sherman as Kris Kringle played right along with jolly humor.

I have to say that it was the performance of Jim Sherman that really put me in the Christmas spirit. He has the sparkle and the charm that – for me – embody Santa Claus. He wears a suit that is more in the tradition of Father Christmas or Sinter Klass from the Netherlands. Even when he was clad in layperson’s attire he looked like Santa. I also enjoyed the character of Mr. Macy played by Chuck Sisson. I’m a girl who grew up on Mr. Drysdale, Mr. Mooney, and Thurston Howell III. There is a certain carriage and technique to carrying off the bluster of such a character in my opinion and Mr. Sisson has it much to my enjoyment.

The entire cast is a joy to watch in Miracle on 34th Street. The supporting villain character of Mr. Sawyer is played with relish by Rus Rainear. Like the movie, Mr. Sawyer is a ferret-like guy who almost kills Christmas while in cahoots with the ambitious District Attorney played by Steve Tomlitz.

Suspense! Romance! Knee Slapping Laughs! It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Most importantly, it passed the “Alexandria Test”. My niece Alexandria was enchanted the moment the action began. That is saying something considering that we had been to Uncle Fun and bought a “can of salted nuts” which contained three fake snakes. Lexie was all about the snakes until Kris Kringle and the music began. She also got to take a picture with Santa on the stage after the play that was a big thrill. “Auntie Kathy! I got to see Santa Claus and be on the stage!”

You have to bring your own camera and resist the urge to want to sit on Jim Sherman’s lap yourself. I’m telling you, the guy took me back to 1965 when I really believed.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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