A Heartfelt john & jen
Seattle musical theatre enthusiasts, weary of repetitive programming of old standards in Puget Sound venues, should jump at the chance to see the seldom performed chamber musical john & jen, in its limited run at Theatre Schmeater, a collective production by Emerging Artists, White Raven Productions and Contemporary Classics. The Andrew Lippa (book/music) and Tom Greenwald (book/lyrics) show needs two really dynamically talented actors for the title roles, as it is a tour-de-force a la I Do!, I Do!. And, while the piece itself has its simplistic, overly sentimentalized aspects, the production directed by Cynthia White is sharp, focused and makes maximal use of stars Ann Evans and Brian Earp.
The act one John and Jen are a younger brother/older sister pair, growing up in '50s/'60s middle America with an abusive father and ineffective mother. Jen becomes John's protector and champion until she takes flight from their oppressive family home to go to college, embracing the '60s hippie lifestyle along the way. John is resentful of this seeming abandonment and decides to enter the military where he loses his life in Vietnam, leaving a broken Jen to carry on. In act two, John is Jen's sensitive, fatherless son, trying to climb out of the shadow of the deceased uncle he never knew. Jen tries to fit her son into her brother's imprints, but ultimately both mother and son experience an epiphany, which leads their own relationship in a healthier, more promising direction.
Having grown up in pretty much the era encompassed in john & jen, I found that Lippa and Greenwald's book took a rather generic, simplified view of the American way of life it portrays, and Greenwald's lyrics are never much more than functional, and at worst, trade off sentiments fresh from a Hallmark card collection. Lippa's music - written before the composer's more individual score for off-Broadway's The Wild Party and his new songs for the Broadway revival of Charlie Brown - is always interesting, inventive and intelligent, when it isn't too busy giving its regards to Sondheim.
That said, it is easy to get caught up in this production of john & jen because of the stellar performances by Ann Evans and Brian Earp. Evans' Jen gets quite a story arc, carrying her from a precious six-year-old bidding her baby brother "Welcome to the World," to an older child explaining the Santa Claus quandry to her kid brother, to the angst-ridden high-schooler who must escape her suffocating home, to the free spirited flower child who comes home to find brother John headed off to the army. All this is just in act one, and Evans makes all the transitions and adjustments of the character with grace, ease and believability. Her act two Jen doesn't change very much, until she finally comes to the acceptance that her son John is a unique and treasurable being, different but just as special as her brother John was. There is a bit more humor in this part of the story, which allows Evans to show her full range as an actress. Throughout, she sings the role with great mastery of technique and depth of emotion. Her act two songs "The Road Ends Here" and "That Was My Way" could serve as acting lessons for other performers.
Earp, one of the most audaciously talented young actors I have seen on any Seattle stage in many years, defines the two Johns clearly, making sure his relationships with Jen are distinct and individual. He has the proverbial voice of an angel, never falling into a pop singing style so favored by many young actors today. Together, the pair connect emotionally from the outset and share lyrical renditions of some of the score's more notable moments, such as "It Took Me Awhile" and the poignant, show closing, "Every Goodbye Is Hello." epiphany, which leads their own relationship in a healthier, more promising direction.
In a space as intimate as Theater Schmeater, too many musical instruments would easily overpower even strong voiced performers such as Evans and Earp, but musical director/pianist Mark Rabe never allows this to occur, and his eloquence at the keyboard, teamed with the wistful grace of cellist Sally Stroum provides the singers with exactly the musical support that is required.
On a nearly bare stage, Sean P. Begley's lighting design accomplishes the necessary changes of scene and mood required, and costumer Elizabeth Stamm provides apparel that is at once period conscious and easy to be change into and out of in full view of the audience.
john & jen is not a big, rousing musical comedy. Nor is it a great one. But in the capable hands of this director and her cast, it is one of the happiest surprises of the theatrical season.
john & jen runs through July 19 at Theater Schmeater. 1500 Summit Avenue, between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For reservations or more information visit www.contemporaryclassics.org or phone (425) 643-9071.