It’s been 20 years since the original production of John & Jen, a song cycle musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald. A lot can happen in two decades. Lippa has gone on to write the theatrical oratorio I Am Harvey Milk (in which he has also appeared), The Addams Family, and a retrospective of his work, Life of the Party, was presented at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory last summer. Greenwald is the author of the young adult book series, Charlie Joe Jackson. People grow up and move on—and occasionally bear the weight of life on life’s terms. Such is the subject matter of their endearing, if sometimes saccharine riff on sibling/parent relations and letting go, now receiving a respectable revival by Keen Company.
Starring Conor Ryan as John (The Fortress of Solitude, Cinderella), and Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin as Jen (Big Fish, Finian’s Rainbow), the musical’s first act follows the course of brother and sister respectively as they find coping mechanisms for an abusive father. Jen as the older sibling makes a promise she can’t keep: to protect her little brother and always be there for him. But as they grow older and transition from 1950s America to the Vietnam Era, Jen’s tolerance for violence informs her decision to stay away from the family and ultimately move to Canada, leaving her brother at home to fend for himself. He joins the military and prior to deployment, the pair has an uncomfortable reunion. It’s the last time they’ll ever see each other.
The second act picks up years later and there is a new John in Jen’s life: her namesake son. As a single mom, Jen smothers (albeit with love) her son, desperately trying to keep the memory of her brother alive. You can imagine how that goes. Through some innovative theatrics, including a talk show sequence where the actors have a brief reprieve from their main characters, the mother-son relation finds resolution and the bird—so to speak—is set free to fly.
Baldwin and Ryan do their best to navigate the material. As sister then mother, Baldwin is tasked with a vast range of age and emotion. While less believable in the first act, she hits her stride in Act 2, where the maternal instincts (and age range) feel like a more natural fit. Ryan, who has skyrocketed onto the New York theater scene since his graduation from the University of Michigan last year, displays an adept physicality as well as restraint when appropriate. Each has his or her shining moments, though the physical production doesn’t do them any favors.
Steven C. Kemp’s oppressive set feels more suited to a futurist production of King Lear, with gloomy and foreboding geometrical shapes jutting in all directions in the Clurman Theatre’s wide proscenium. Josh Bradford’s lighting feels misplaced and over saturated. Combined, these elements exude an unnecessary weight on a production that would be better served by more fluidity and space.
Directed by Keen Company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein and featuring musical direction by Lily Ling, John & Jen reaches for emotional summits and occasionally finds them. For musical theater fans, the show offers insight into the Lippa cannon, offering early glimpses of his current status as one of the more prominent theater composers of this generation. And while the musical may not always soar to new heights, it is an endearing exploration of the human spirit.
John and Jen
Presented by Keen Company
Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through April 4
Matthew Wexler is the editor of The Broadway Blog as well as the national style and travel editor for EDGE Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.