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John & Jen

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Our lives and choices are shaped in innumerable ways by others, especially those closest to us, often in ways we don't recognize at the time (if ever). Rarely, though, is the impact of a grand and glorious bond between two members of the same family allowed the simple, clarion, and shattering treatment it receives in John & Jen. Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's 1995 musical dissects nearly four decades in the tumultuous relationship between a brother and sister who never knew exactly how important the other was, or would be. And Jonathan Silverstein's sterling new revival for the Keen Company ensures that this duo's story will be just as powerful and poignant for you as for them.

It also seems safe to say that Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin, the perfectly matched duo who play the title characters, are charged with bringing out nuances that didn't exist or weren't given much focus upon the show's premiere (which I did not see). Beginning in 1952 and stretching to 1990, John & Jen contrasts the flickering fortunes of two ordinary people against the ever-moving ground of America undergoing tectonic social shifts, something that's more immediately familiar and resonant to us now than was largely the case during the 1990s.

We first meet both Jen and John when the 6-year-old girl visits her new baby brother in his crib and gives him her teddy bear. "I'll make sure you're happy / As safe as you can be," she sings, in words that will take on darker new meaning later. Jen, it turns out, is not much fond of their father, who has a temper that occasionally turns violent. But while she always takes Mom's side, John—who is sometimes the target of his father's rage—doesn't always see Dad as blameless, and though the two care about no one more than the other, the party lines are already being set.

Literally as well as figuratively, by the way. Jen's promise to protect John eventually falls victim to time as she goes off to college in New York in the early 1960s and gets caught in the vast upheavals there, from protesting to pot smoking to the Summer of Love, and John is left behind to be guided by his parents' more traditional roles and values. But after a rift forms between brother and sister that isn't healed when John enlists in the navy to fight in Vietnam, Jen must live the rest of her life without him. This means loving him from afar and with only the consolation of her son, also named John (and also played by Ryan), to whom she vows to not do wrong as she did his uncle—but who, like him, is determined to be his own man.

These contrasting battles for independence (Jen in the first act, John in the second) are what give John & Jen its dramatic spine in Lippa and Greenwald's careful, ultra-lean book, which skillfully negotiates the potential difficulties of the underlying premise. But the flesh and blood are provided by the score, at once a precise example of mid-90s musical "post-modernism," and classically influenced theatrical thinking.

Lippa's music (still some of his finest work) and Greenwald's lyrics capture the roiling times, the pair's evolving feelings for each other, and Jen's lifelong difficult road with crystalline clarity, at least in Act I. The sweet "Welcome to the World" and the playful "Think Big" define the duo as children, whereas "Trouble With Men" (showing just how Jen's troubles with Dad affected her) and "Hold Down the Fort" chart the slow march to adulthood. Once they arrive, the epic "Timeline," in which paths permanently diverge, and "Out of My Sight," a reunion number that quickly disintegrates, make painfully obvious the chasm that's cracked open between the two, and "Run & Hide" is the tear-jerking conclusion to their tale.

If the second act ultimately delivers on all that promise, it's a bit more leisurely getting there. Though "Little League" and "Bye Room" show how the next John is growing up and away from Mom, they don't resonate as strongly as you want them to, and an overlong sequence called "Talk Show," in which Jen and John work out their problems through imaginary TV appearances is a major departure from style that just barely works. The moments that link the acts with the natural bridges of regret and loss ("Old Clothes," "Just Like You," "Smile of Your Dreams"), or musical echoes to earlier songs, are much stronger; and the four-part graduation finale, which includes the show-stopper "The Road Ends Here" and the wrenching "That Was My Way" and "Every Goodbye Is Hello" is about as emotionally astute as any musical has been in the last 20 years.

Baldwin may not possess all the bigness of voice you want for Jen (the role was originated by Carolee Carmello), but her take on the role is arresting. She beautifully balances the anxiousness of the first act, as Jen tries to reconcile her love for her brother and hate for her father, with an acerbic sweetness that puts you on her side of the encroaching rebellion, and wages an equally impressive battle after intermission, when Jen must learn to let go despite her need to carry on. With singing that slides effortlessly between salty and sweet, and precise acting that conveys without straining each step along Jen's journey, Baldwin is giving a legitimate, utterly winning, star turn.

John isn't quite as expansive a role, but Ryan handles it expertly, showing us how a committed boy becomes a steadfast man two times over without ever lapsing into caricature or judgment. Ryan's tenor voice is at once gentle and piercing, a hug and a shove at once—exactly what's needed for John as he must embrace Jen and, before long, send her on her own way.

Silverstein's staging is smooth and knowing as it leaps across feelings and eras, and builds with assurance to the final moments of both acts, which are glorious (and tear-jerking) in their synchronicity. Christine O'Grady's musical staging is spare but effective, as are Josh Bradford's lights and Sydney Maresca's quick-change costumes. The production's only real misstep is with the set. Steven C. Kemp's design comprises a collection of formless, sharp-edged geographic figures rendered in muddy brown, which may make a blank slate for the sprawling adventures, but also looks distractingly, even self-consciously, minimalist.

This hardly matters, however, when everything else is so fresh, so good, and so necessary. Though many of John & Jen's specifics are far removed from us now, the urgency with which it insists that we love each other—regardless of our viewpoints and where our paths lead us—could not be more timely than it is today. As with its central characters, that truth and conviction are what make this John & Jen a gorgeous triumph.

John & Jen
Through April 4
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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