Friday, February 27, 2015

Margin Notes: John & Jen

Connor Ryan and Kate Baldwin as John and Jen.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
John & Jen

Seen on: Friday, 2/13/15.
My grade: B. A solid enough production of a rather thin show.

Plot and Background
Told almost entirely through song, Andrew Lippa's two-hander musical follows the story of John and Jen (and other John), as told against the ever-changing times of the second half of the twentieth century. Jen watches out for her little brother from his infancy, trying to protect him from their quarreling parents and controlling father; but when she leaves for college and discovers the psychedelic lifestyle, he falls more under his father's influence, enlists, and is killed in Vietnam. In Act Two, Jen, now a single mother raising a son named after her late brother, tries to keep the memory of her brother alive in her son, not noticing how smothered he feels by his mother's clinging protectiveness. When he decides to forego college to stay home and look after her fragile emotional state, she has to confront whom they've both become. john & jen was originally produced Off-Broadway in 1995 at The Lamb's Theatre and briefly revived there in 2006. This production marks the show's twentieth anniversary.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd heard the cast album years ago and remembered being unimpressed by what felt like a rather predictable and derivative narrative.


Play: Seeing this production didn't drastically change my opinion of the story itself - it's not, at least for me, a terribly interesting narrative - but there was something about the storytelling, something that didn't translate to the cast album I'd listened to as a teen, that made the story more palatable. It wasn't just getting to see it staged, the songs removed from their vacuum - largely it was the charisma of the two performers, as well as being able to see the transitions within and around the songs, as the characters age and grow. Maybe it was even that patch of green grass at the center of the stage - the place where Jen could be alone, where John leaves her, and leaves her again.

Cast: Kate Baldwin's voice was luscious, allowing her songs to soar. Her character has lot more of the emotional heavy-lifting, serving first as John's defender and later as a survivor of loss and abandonment - she must struggle with holding on to the memory of her brother, trying to raise her son without turning into her abusive father, and not seeing until it's almost too late that protection can turn into smothering. Connor Ryan's voice was less distinctive, but he's got the flashier role - John gets to clown more than Jen is allowed. He seemed more adept at accessing the younger ages than she always was, but the two of them were always the strongest when they were interacting honestly and without deflection.

Design: Steve C. Kemp's set is a collection of abstract shapes that serve as amorphous spaces - bedrooms, baseball fields, etc. They are mostly painted in splotched black, with the exception of one wall in the center, splashed with all warm colors, looking over a ramp of grass - the one natural, vibrant space, and the place which serves as John and Jen's haven, where they leave each other, and where John comes to rest. Sydney Maresca's costumes were flexible and evocative clues to both age and time period - and sometimes painfully poignant, as Act One John's costumes were recycled for both Jen and her son John to wear.


Running: now playing at Clurman Theatre (Theatre Row/Keen Company) - opened February 26, 2015. Closing: April 4, 2015
Category: musical
Length: 1 hour, 45 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book: Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
Music: Andrew Lippa
Lyrics: Tom Greenwald
Director: Jonathan Silverstein
Designers: Steve C. Kemp (Set), Sydney Maresca (Costume), Josh Bradford (Lighting), Julian Evans (Sound), Ricola Wille and Julia Moreno (Props).
Cast: Kate Baldwin, Connor Ryan.

Connor Ryan and Kate Baldwin as John and Jen. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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