|Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan Photo: Carol Rosegg|
A Sweet Musical About Love and Letting Go
By Lauren Yarger
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the sweet little musical John and Jen, getting a rare revival Off-Broadway by Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City.
The early work by Andrew Lippa (with lyrics by Tom Greenwald who partnered with Lippa on the book) follows the relationship between Jen (the beautifully voiced Kate Baldwin who wowed us in Broadway’s revival of Finian’s Rainbow) and her brother and son, both named John (and both played by relative newcomer Conor Ryan).
The story, told mostly in song (with Greenwald’s insightful and moving lyrics almost forming a libretto), is set amidst changing times in America from 1952 to 1990 (on a minimal set designed by Steven Kemp). In 1952 a 6-year-old Jen is presented with a baby brother and she immediately loves him. The two become close and Jen protects him from the abusive father he idolizes.
We follow them through childhood as they play, tease each other, share secrets and suffer typical sibling moments growing up together. Jen feels an intensifying need to escape their home, however, and college provides an opportunity. She goes off to Columbia and embraces the free living there. She becomes involved with a guy and organizes protests against the Viet Nam War, eventually moving away to Canada.
Meanwhile, John joins up to impress his father and is killed in action. A pregnant Jen copes with the loss of her brother by making her son his namesake. She returns home a single mom, still avoiding contact with her father. Jen relieves memories of her brother and talks with him at graveside about her son, of whom she is overly protective. She lost one John. She isn’t going to lose the other.
Unfortunately, the similarities between the men don’t stop there. She expects her son to love baseball and to take on other aspects of his uncle’s personality. This, and young John’s desire to spend time with his grandfather, cause tension in the mother-son relationship.
The themes of sibling love, of loss, of love between a mother and son and of letting go all play out in a story that is touching, humorous and very satisfying. The music from Lippa ((The Wild Party, The Addams Family), musical directed by Lily Ling, doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling which allows the characters to develop fully into characters about whom we care a lot.
Director Jonathan Silverstein (Keen Company’s Artistic Director) skillfully creates a visual world with little set or prop enhancement and Ryan transitions fully between the two characters (with costume assistance from Designer Sydney Maresca to create two, separate, complex characters. He and Baldwin have natural rapport on stage. If you are a mother or a sister, you will choke up.
This 20th anniversary production includes the premiere of a new song, “Trouble with Men.” The show originally played Off-Broadway in 1995.
John and Jen plays at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd St., NYC through through April 4. Tuesday- Thursday at 7 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets: $68-$85 ; http://keencompany.org.
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