Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Two Excellent Singer-Actors Make for a john & jen
It starts on Christmas Eve in 1952 when five-year-old John is too excited to sleep, determined to stay up until he sees Santa Claus. His older sister Jen is aware that their parents are fighting downstairs and tries to get John to sleep. Throughout the two-hour piece with one intermission, Jen tries to protect John from the world. In the first act we follow the pair through childhood and adolescence. There is a strong bond of friendship and love between them until Jen decides to leave home to go to college. John is very unhappy and is left at home to "man the fort." Jen becomes a hippy and a peace advocate against the Korean War. She and her boyfriend leave the country and live in Canada. John, who is a strong conservative, has joined the military and becomes very angry at Jen for her antiwar stance. John dies in action. All of this occurs in the forty-five minutes of act one, with eleven songs beautifully sung by David Curley and Kristin Stokes.
john & jen's second act opens with a mature Jen who blames herself for letting the younger brother out of her sight. She gives birth to a child who is also played by David Curley. She becomes a controlling and suffocating mother to make up for her mistakes with her deceased brother. She tries to make the son into the personality of the brother but he has a mind of his own. She inexorably drives her son to leave home.
Many believe that Andrew Lippa will be one of the great composers of our age since his music has some haunting melodies and thought provoking lyrical images. It has taken me a while to appreciate his style but I am recognizing that he is one of the best composers in the Broadway musical field today. Many of his songs have lovely, intricate melodies like "Welcome to the World," "Dear God, and "It Took Me a While." Tom Greenwald's lyrics are apropos to the progress of the musical drama. He uses musical conversational dialogue to a great advantage between John and Jen.
Many have found that john & jen is an emotional journey, especially those who have had a sister and brother relationship growing up. David Curley and Kristin Stokes are two extraordinary performers who are able to make an excellent transition from childhood to adult in this fast-paced production. The two artists blend perfectly in harmony and both have perfect phasing for each song. David has a crowd pleasing voice that has thematic resonance. Kristin Stokes is like a young Kristin Chenoweth and has a lovely melodic voice. Each word of the lyric is clearly heard. Her acting in the second act as an older woman is right on the mark.
Three musicians backup the singers with Michael O'Dell on keyboard (Jonathan Erman alternates), Mark Cepeda on percussion and Tanja Paolini on cello. They are excellent backup for the two artists. However, some of the beautiful dramatic lyrics were drowned out by the loudness of the keyboard. Also, while the other members are hidden behind a screen, Michael is very noticeable, going almost into ecstasy pounding the ivories. He detracts from the drama of the last two songs.
Ron Gasparinetti's set is simple for the small stage. It consists of boxes, with a background of baby blue and white panels showing baby and childhood pictures of David and Kristin.
john & jen runs through June 10 at the Bus Barn Theatre located at 97 Hillview Ave, Los Altos. For tickets please call 650-941-0551 or visit www.busbarn.org.
Bus Barn Stage Company will open its Summer Festival of six new plays running from July 6 through July 27th.