Music: Andrew Lippa
Book: Tom Greenwald
Reviewer: Charlotte Robson
Revivals of classic material are as much a staple of the stage as curtains and lighting malfunctions. John and Jen is one such production, revived twenty years on from its original 1995 run on the Off Broadway platform. Andrew Lippa (Music) &Tom Greenwald’s (Lyrics) story is a deceptively simple two-act structure, chronicling the relationship between the titular Jen and John – Jen’s brother in the first act, and her son in the second – before, through and after the years of the Vietnam War in America. Family drama, socio-political debate and heartbreak ensue.
Kate Baldwin plays Jen, and Conor Ryan both Johns. Their performances – equal parts technical excellence and emotional exactitude – are the heart of the production; Baldwin’s Jen is a radical firebrand determined to escape her background through the emergent hippie culture, and despite their shared voice the boyish bravado of John the brother, baseball star turned soldier, and the weary born-middle-aged tone of John the son are a sharply effective contrast.
Act 1 is the stronger of the two emotionally, kickstarted by a brutal portrait of a family on the verge of collapse in Christmas 1, in which the actions of an abusive father ruin the innocence of a little boy waiting up for Santa Claus and destroy his faith in both, despite his sister’s efforts to protect him. With the cast limited entirely to the siblings, the listener is tied into their story, and with it into the power of their bond, which at once obscures and highlights the sadness of their situation.
In this way, innocence and darkness intertwine magnificently throughout the first Act, with jaunty tunes and careful wording skating across the ice beneath which a constant sense of dread and foreboding lurks. Trouble With Men and Think Big form a pair of comic character pieces on either side of emotional powerhouses like Hold Down the Fort, and all the songs are littered with clever cultural allusions that help ground the story in the wider world that informs the little sphere the siblings occupy.
Politics, familial and national, come to a head in the recording’s magnificent crescendo, Run and Hide, where both characters and actors are pushed to their limits and fatally broken apart. From here, Act 2 is opened by a few solo songs from Jen, carrying over musical codas and catchphrases from Act 1 to fill the gap left by her co star.
Act 2, while more structurally sound and conventionally organised than its predecessor, suffers a little from the loss of the chemistry between Jen and her brother. Emotional lynchpins like Just Like You and The Road Ends Here remain magnificent, and prove the ultimate strength of the production overall, but other songs fail to reach the heights of their predecessors. Montage-cum-newsreel Talk Show, in particular, while a clever pastiche of the American talk show culture, lacks the sense of tension and build-up of Act 1’s Timeline, and while the relationship between mother and son is undeniably poignant, Jen’s fall into guilt reduces her emotional range and dulls much of the turmoil in her arc through constant repetition.
Listeners may also find the resolution of that guilt, and the eventual reconciliation of mother and son at the grave of her brother a touch too saccharine against the unapologetically raw truths exposed by the rest of the story.
Disappointing conclusion aside, Jen and John is well worth its revival, for it is proof that talented performers and strong writing can endure even the longest of hiatuses, and produce as heartfelt, emotional, and memorable a performance in its 20th year as in its first.