Friday, February 27, 2015

JOHN & JEN: Revival of Andrew Lippa's First Musical Boasts A Pair of First-Rate Performances

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We New York theatergoers like our psychologically damaged and damaging characters to be writ large:  our Phantoms, our Sweeney Todds, our Norma Desmonds.  So what to make of the Keen Company’s lovingly-conceived revival of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s decidedly under-wrought 1995 musical John & Jen, where it is neurosis rather than psychosis that is under the microscope?

To begin with, front and center, are the performances of the show’s two stars, the always splendid Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow and Lippa’s own Big Fish) and Conor Ryan (Cinderella and Fortress of Solitude). They share the stage and sing their way through a time period covering 40 years (from the 1950s to the 1990s) in the two-hour, two-act production that has virtually no dialog outside of the songs.

Both performers acquit themselves well with what amounts to a work that is more of a song cycle than a musical.  For this production—in the appropriately intimate space of the Clurman Theater at Theatre Row—they are nicely abetted by Sydney Maresca’s costume design (lots of quick costume changes throughout) and the excellent musicianship of pianist Lily Ling and cellist Melanie Mason, all under Jonathan Silverstein’s direction.  Perhaps Steven C. Kemp’s abstract set may be a bit jarring, but it does provide a variety of performance areas for the pair. 

While there isn’t a great deal of depth to the storyline, Ms. Baldwin’s character, Jen, does undergo an arc of development as she sets out to right the wrongs she believes she has committed. Mr. Ryan’s character, John, is more limited. That’s because there are two different “Johns,” an uncle and his nephew, each of whom is depicted from birth though the teenage years. Therein lies the lean and gently poignant plot, a tale of sister and brother, and of mother and son. 

In Act I, Jen and John are siblings, growing up with an abusive father. Jen, the older of the two by six years, forms a bond of mutual protection with John (“I’ll never let him hurt you; trust me!” Jen pledges in one form or another multiple times throughout Act I). That vow holds until Jen becomes a teenager, starts to rebel, and ultimately leaves home for college and New York City, where she quickly embraces the lifestyle of the 1960s—sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that is anti-establishment. When she reluctantly returns home for a visit, she finds that John, left to his own devices, has come to embrace his father’s values. In the hopes of winning Dad’s approval, he has enlisted in the U. S. Navy just in time to be shipped out to Vietnam. When Jen announces she is joining her boyfriend to start a new life in Canada, the pair have a falling out that is never reconciled due to John’s death in battle.

Act II opens with Jen newly returned to the U. S. with her young son, whom she has named John in memory of her brother, after breaking up with the boy’s father. She is resolved to making good her broken promise to her brother by never letting anything bad happen to her son. But her determination has turned her into one of those “helicopter” parents, always hovering over John until he, like his mother before him, wants nothing more than to escape. The show ends on the day of John’s high school graduation. He has been accepted into Columbia University’s writing program, though Mom is aghast at the idea of his leaving for New York, the way she had done many years before. Will Jen finally be able to let go and move on with her own life? 

John & Jen is structured so as to keep everything low keyed and within the range of normal neurotic family dysfunction. While Jen and her brother may have grown up in an abusive household, we aren’t given much information as to how bad it was for them. No monsters lurking in the shadows. No Carrie-like psychotic meltdowns. Jen’s sense of guilt is predicated entirely on her having left her brother behind to “hold down the fort” (one of the song titles) when she sought a new life for herself.   

Musically, the songs are designed to serve the story. There is none of the sweeping romanticism that Mr. Lippa would later use for the love story that lies at the heart of Big Fish. This is a different kind of love story, examining the love of a woman for her brother, for her son, and, finally, for herself. The score reflects this kind of interplay by evoking moments as they occur, without grand gestures or flourishes—the way that lives generally do unfold. 

In the end, the best reason to see John & Jen is to experience Mr. Lippa’s first musical in the pleasurable company of Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, two gifted performers at different stages of their careers who work beautifully together.

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