Heidi Blickenstaff and James Moye
in Meet John Doe
(© T Charles Erickson)
Heidi Blickenstaff and James Moye
in Meet John Doe
(© T Charles Erickson)
Out of the darkest days of the Great Depression, Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman have crafted Meet John Doe, a musical based on the classic 1941 film by Frank Capra. Under the steady hand of director Eric Schaeffer, and with the help of legendary music arranger Jonathon Tunick, Meet John Doe is finally getting its "world premiere" at Washington D.C.'s Ford's Theatre, and the result is a smart and feisty show wrapped in a big Broadway sound. While the production is less than perfectly cast, the show's potential is clear.

Since it played at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut last fall, in a developmental production with a largely different cast, Gerle and Sugarman have added four new songs, rewritten or removed several others, and changed characters and scenes. The music is pleasantly melodic and occasionally brash, and the story is simple but affecting.

The plot concerns Ann Mitchell (Heidi Blickenstaff), a reporter desperately trying to save her job. So she invents a character, John Doe, who promises to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to protest the condition of "the common man." When the character starts selling newspapers, she and the newspaper's corrupt publisher D.B. Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) have to come up with a flesh and blood Doe. They find him in the person of James Willoughby (James Moye), a rundown and homeless former baseball player.

The fictional Doe fronts "plain-speaking" columns written by Mitchell that preach charity and paint a portrait of America as a land where neighbors take care of neighbors. He becomes a national figure and "John Doe Clubs" spread across the country. That's a tempting opportunity for the wealthy publisher and his fat cat friends, who decide to use Doe to take over the government. While Capra was famously unable to come up with an ending for his film that he found satisfying, Schaeffer and the writers devised a new finale that enhances its impact.

With her girlish laugh, Blickenstaff doesn't always seem the hard-bitten reporter, a female making her way in a man's world. However, she energetically throws herself into the big tunes, such as the peppy "I'm Your Man," where Mitchell begs for her job. Indeed, she manages to make such lyrics as, "You need someone who crosses her legs and her tees," sound less banal than they are. And her singing is sweet in pretty ballads such as "I Hope You Can See This."

As Doe/Willoughby, Moye is a plausible combination of wariness and idealism. His strong, clear voice soars in the inspirational anthem "Perfect Days," expressing the character's yearning to return to baseball. In "Get the Picture," Blickenstaff and Moye go back and forth in a song broken by dialogue; his portions are light and jazzy, while hers are more bluesy. The song nicely captures some of the feel of cinematic repartee and rapid-fire patter.

The show's big production number "Bigger Than Baseball," sung by Moye and the company, advances the plot in a stage version of a cinematic montage as Doe/Willoughby finally embraces the power he has been given. The idea that Doe may be seen as a vaguely religious figure is also underscored in "Thank You," a moving nine-part a cappella number with definite hymn-like overtones, including a "thank you" that sounds an awful lot like an "amen" at the conclusion.

Sullivan isn't much of a singer, and his limited range and warbling vibrato are not up to the rigors of the ambitious publisher's songs. However, a standout in the supporting cast is Joel Blum, who is colorfully eccentric as Colonel, a hobo who is Willoughby's buddy.

Derek McLane's dark gray set, featuring industrial girders and massive gears put the cast smack in the middle of a giant printing press, reminding us that this is a story of media manipulation, while also nicely serving as the Brooklyn Bridge. Alejo Vietti's black, white, and gray costumes add to the period ambiance. Karma Camp's "musical staging" is strictly meat-and-potatoes, in line with the traditional ambiance of the show, although the 10-musician, 15-piece orchestra is perched above the stage, rather than in the pit, on a span also populated by actors.

With Schaeffer's slight edginess and a new ending, Meet John Doe may no longer be the old brand of Capra-Corn; but it's a show the old master would certainly recognize.