BWW Review: JOHN & JEN at HATTheatre: A Family-Friendly Charmer

Photo By Jason Eib
BWW Review: JOHN & JEN at HATTheatre: A Family-Friendly Charmer
Photo By Jason Eib

By Brent Deekens

Before getting into the specifics of this tender musical production, I must postulate that though JOHN & JEN is written to be (traditionally) performed by adults, the premise of the show feels better situated for kids. Not for toddlers, no, but more towards fourth/fifth graders or advancing teenagers that could reasonably respond to the coming-of-age occurrences that this show details (and there's only a single utterance of a vulgarity to boot).

A correlating side-note: co-writer and lyricist Tommy Greenwald's affection for children's lore would further blossom with his penning of the popular "Charlie Joe Jackson" guidebooks for teens.

The two-person spectacle that is JOHN & JEN - which here features Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) in resounding and sweet performances - revolves around the American sociological fluxes emanating from a linear timespan stretching from 1952 to 1990.

In Act I, we first meet Jen at age 6; she is the caring sister to her newborn brother, John. As the years impulsively fly by, we see John advancing into a jovial young boy with a penchant for baseball... and a heartbreaking despondency for his parents' tumultuous relationship. Although Jen initially promised to always shield John from the unavoidable woes of the world, she whisks herself away from her small-town abode to become one with the New York City hippie movement of the 1960s. John, maturing into Vietnam-bound seaman in his own right, eventually clashes with Jen and her carefree sensibilities. Inevitably, despite their unending sibling love, they separate - in more tragic ways than one.

Come Act II (1972), Jen has been forced into single motherhood with the birth of her son... John (also played by Hester). Although this mother-son relationship is far from disastrous, it's still a bit weird. Jen, being somewhat unable to cope with her unfinished childhood responsibilities, delves into a form of transference by vicariously living out her son's life through the past history of her brother - particularly through baseball. This kooky intemperance of Jen's is not lost on John, her bemused son, as they continue to live through the ups and down of the 1970s on into the early 1990s.

And yet through all of this, the affectionate, familial regard that these two genuinely display for one another is never lost, even while coursing through a myriad of happy, morose, and undeniably idiosyncratic times.

Farmer and Hester's work here cannot go unappreciated, not to mention backing their characters up with robust vocals to Andrew Lippa's fun but demanding music - most of which is sung-through in form. Stand-out numbers include the hilarious "Little League," the dense tone of "Run And Hide," and the reverent, 11 o'clock ballad that is "The Road Ends Here."

Individual aces in this production go to musical direction by Joshua Wortham (paired with vocal direction by the show's director himself, Doug Schneider), unique scenic contrivances by designer Frank Foster (this includes a trifecta of lucid video screens which feature, among other images, years-old real-life photographs of the two leads), and a live, four-piece orchestra that not only includes Nick Oyler on drums, but it also manages to squeeze in some acting interjections from Wortham (keyboard), Michael Knowles (cello), and Marissa Resmini (violin). An amusing touch!

In closing, I cannot stress the memorable theatrical opportunity that teenagers and young adults can take part in by coming to see this show. And especially for young people interested in acting and singing: come the college years, student productions of full-length but very, very small scale plays and musicals often materialize, and JOHN & JEN would be a perfect vehicle for an ambitious future undergraduate duo...

... Just don't forget to invite your siblings and your parents to your production, kids. And this respect extends to Vickie L. Scallion's production at HATTheatre as well. Ms. Scallion and her team have put together an appealing exhibition of family dynamics that parents and kids alike should find to be a reflective (and emotional) jaunt.

JOHN & JEN plays at the HATTheatre through March 17th.

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