BWW Reviews: Kate Baldwin Captivating in JOHN & JEN Revival
There are only three characters in Andrew Lippa (book and music) and Tom Greenwald's (book and lyrics) touching and tragic 1995 chamber musical, John & Jen, but it's a fourth, unseen character that propels the story along.
In the first act, six-year-old Jen welcomes baby brother John into the world, promising to always be there for him. What is soon evident is that she's protecting him from their abusive father, and while she tries to shield him through the years, the time finally comes for her to go off to college. It's the late 1960s and Jen is experimenting with drugs and protesting against the Vietnam War while John has mirrored his father's views and has joined the military. When Jen announces that she and her boyfriend are moving to Canada so he can escape the draft, it's the last they see of one another.
In the second act, Jen is now a financially struggling single mom raising a boy she named after her brother. Clothing him in John's hand-me-downs and giving him John's old toys, she is determined not to be the parent her father was (Their mother isn't mentioned much.), but her protective smothering might be felt as another kind of abuse.
Told nearly entirely through musical scenes, it's a quiet, emotionally rich musical and director Jonathan Silverstein's simple, straightforward staging - highlighted by Steven C. Kemp's softly abstract set - serves the material quite well.The main attraction is the exceptional singer/actor Kate Baldwin, whose captivating vocals and incisive phrasings take Jen from a cute and charming big sister to a rebellious young woman to a frazzled mom doing the best she knows how.
As the pair of Johns, Conor Ryan doesn't get the opportunity to grow with the same emotional complexity, but his strong singing and sincere portrayals of youth and adolescence are a fine match.