BWW Reviews: Satisfying JOHN & JEN at Red Branch
Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's john & jen (1995), being staged as The Love/Loss Cycle by Red Branch Theatre in repertory with The Last 5 Years (reviewed in this space two weeks ago), is not nearly as well-known as its companion-piece (only four productions scheduled for this year, compared to The Last 5 Years' 34). That is a shame. Although the music is not as strong as Jason Robert Brown's score for The Last 5 Years, the script is stronger. As I pointed out two weeks ago, there is a problem with the continuity between the vignettes in The Last 5 Years which sometimes leaves the characters' motivations unexplained. No such problem with jen & john, a sort of longitudinal study covering nearly 40 years in the emotional life of Jen (Danielle Sherry), presented through her interactions with the two most important men in her life, her kid brother John and then her son John (both portrayed by Patrick J. Prebula). One can clearly discern how the dynamics of Jen's family of origin (abusive right-wing father, abused mother) shape what happens in these relationships all the way from 1952 to 1990.
Of course, the musical is not just the tale of the working-out and the ultimate dispelling of a family curse. It is also a poignant account of a woman relating to a treasured younger brother and an even more treasured son in light of the early loss of the brother. And the show is also an intriguing exercise in structuring so that events in each relationship are paralleled with events in the other.
Sherry is almost perfect as Jen, fiercely protective of each John, yet also struggling to shape her own life at the same time, against the backdrop of a radically changing America. She passes swiftly through a number of developmental phases that are presented perhaps a bit too sketchily with pop culture references (schoolgirl, hippie college student, divorced single mother), but she breathes life into them all. The fierceness is the most endearing and complex of Jen's emotions. "I won't fail my son/ The same way I failed you," she sings to her brother's memory, but of course keeping such a resolution poses the threat of failing her son in new and different ways, because the situations may be similar and the dramatic structure may render one a direct echo of another, but the son is a different person who must be dealt with in different ways, and Jen's learning this is key to the ultimate resolution of the story.
Prebula's challenge is to present two characters, each deliberately limned more as a series of sketches rather than as fully realized portrayals. This is Jen's show more than it is either John's. There are, for instance, two numbers that simply consist of one John and later the other as a baby, under a coverlet, back to the audience, without any lines. But even when the moment calls for interaction, for instance in the scene where Jen as a high-school basketball player is asking her pesky younger brother to be inconspicuous and not to embarrass her by talking to a potential boyfriend, or the parallel scene in which as a mom, Jen is asked by her son not to be a loud, intrusive parent at his softball game, her emotions seem to count for more. Prebula is good at this sketch stuff, and good at being a sullen, emotional young man, which both Johns end up doing.
I admit to having entertained some skepticism whether putting the two shows together as a "cycle" was more than a gimmick, but I came away impressed by how appropriate the pairing is. Both are two-performer chamber musicals built around a pair of stories told in ways that cause each to echo the other in great detail. They even sound the same; Jason Robert Brown orchestrated both shows. (Small, cello-heavy band.) And, as presented by Red Branch, they use the identical set, down to an illuminated-Christmas-tree-in-a-box prop built into the set. Each ends with a farewell between the central characters (The Last 5 Years actually ends with two simultaneously).
There is also one important difference between the shows: The Last 5 Years is mostly a series of solos, while john & jen is mostly a series of pas-de-deux. The dynamics between the actors, therefore, are quite different. If the challenge in The Last 5 Years is frequently for the actor to evoke the other character without anyone actually onstage to play off, the challenge in john & jen is the more conventional one of playing off another live character. Sometimes, the challenge is ratcheted up here, not only by the way that the characters evolve from sketch to sketch, but also by one number, TALK SHOW, in which the two performers rapidly switch roles and locations in the auditorium in a sort of surreal mash-up of talk shows in which John is "interviewed" about his problems with Jen, and then Jen is interviewed about her problems with John, etc. (The interviews are sort of a mini-parallel to the Loveland sequence in Follies.) Prebula and Sherry display the necessary physical agility and acting gifts to make the changes funny only by design.
In short, the two productions are guaranteed to set up an enjoyable, if somewhat somber, compare-and-contrast exercise.
The shows are definitely worth a visit, with at least one opportunity remaining for taking them both in on the same day. But if you're choosing one, john & jen is the one.
john & jen, book & music by Andrew Lippa, book & lyrics by Tom Greenwald, directed by Stephanie Lynn Williams. Through May 3 at 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD 21045. 410-997-9352. www.redbranchtheatre.com . Tickets $18-22.