Friday, February 27, 2015

John & Jen

It is a wonderful thing that John & Jen exists. Written in the early 1990s, it was never going to be a huge hit or a big money-maker. Clearly Andrew Lippa (music and book) and Tom Greenwald (lyrics and book) simply had something to say, and a unique way to say it. The story of Jen and her brother John and then Jen and her son John, it addresses serious themes of abuse and the meaning of love, and the heavy parts outweigh the light ones. It is largely sung, and it covers nearly 40 years. Many of the songs are excellent: funny, sad, emotional, informative, silly, etc, as needed. Some are beautiful.

Kate Baldwin, Conor Ryan
Photo: Carol Rosegg
And it is a wonderful thing that Keen Company is presenting this strong revival. Kate Baldwin is lovely as Jen, and Conor Ryan does an excellent job as both Johns. All in all, this is a piece of work that should be seen.

That being said, I have to admit that I didn't much like it. I admired it tremendously, but I was never quite emotionally involved. I think this is due to the book, which I found problematical.

[here be spoilers]
The show begins with John sitting quietly. He seems to be a young adult. Jen says something along the lines of "can you forgive me?" Then we go back to their childhood, with Jen striving to protect John from their abusive father and promising to always be there for him. But when Jen goes off to college, she ignores John for years as she lives the '60s full out, and he ends up allied with their father. John joins the army, goes to Vietnam, dies.

Act 2. Jen is now raising her son and trying to shove him into a mold the shape of her late brother. It is about as successful as you might imagine. John ends up more sympathetic to Jen's abusive father than to Jen. John gets accepted to a good college and almost doesn't go because he knows that Jen will not do well without him. Jen finally realizes that she needs to let go of both Johns if she is to move on.

So, here are my problems.

(1) I didn't believe that Jen would just cut John off in that way. The sort of loyalty that abused children have can be incredibly strong. And we are shown no reason why she would ignore her promises to always protect him. I believe that the Jen presented in the first half of Act 1 would be more likely to take John with her than to eliminate him from her life. I'm not saying it's impossible. I am saying that John & Jen doesn't make the case.

(2) Jen is presented as a really, really, unrelievedly clueless mother. The basic idea that she'd want to make John II like John I is effective, but she's not given a positive moment in the whole act.

(3) And then comes the moment where she has a great opportunity to be positive, when John offers to stay home. Instead, she starts yelling at him, for pretty unclear reasons. Six Feet Under dealt with a similar situation beautifully. The mother says, "You would do that for me?" and then tells the child, "No, no, you must go and have your own life." That would have worked beautifully here. Perhaps an argument could work well too, but this one didn't. It came across as arbritrary and unconvincing. And the non-argument approach would an equally effective lead-in to Jen's big song.

(4) On a whole, the show struck me as unfair to Jen. She's cliche and one-dimensional and is written (at least from age 17 on) to always do the most annoying thing. She shows little in the way of growth and development. As mentioned in point #3, she is not even allowed her one potentially positive moment. On the other hand, the Johns get to grow up twice! I think it's meaningful that the creators chose John & Jen over Jen & John as the title.

[end of spoilers]
Despite my complaints, I still recommend this as a must-see for people who are interested in musicals by contemporary artists.

(5th row, press ticket)

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