JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238
Performances: March 2-17, 2018
Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Students, Military w/ID; $12 RVATA Card Holders; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door
Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org
Any excuse to spend an evening with Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) is an evening well spent. In this two-person chamber musical that fits perfectly in the intimate black box that is HATTheatre, Farmer and Hester do not disappoint.
For those who don’t like spoilers, do not read any further until after you have seen this show. There is no way to write about this show without giving away a key component that some might consider a spoiler.
John & Jen spans some forty years, from about l950 or 1952 until 1990 in the life of Jen and the two Johns in her life. In Act 1, Jen welcomes her little brother into a world that proves to be filled with both love and chaos. Interestingly, the same father that Jen considers to be a source of chaos is a source of stability and love for John. Perspective matters from start to finish in this intriguing and intimate work, written by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, with music by Lippa and lyrics by Greenwald.
In his director’s note, Doug Schneider indicates that he did not like the first version he heard of this show, which was first performed Off-Broadway in 1995, but became hooked on this newer version, a 2015 revival, which included some new songs and arrangements and dropped some of the original songs. I’m curious about the original version, as I found the current songs and music somewhat uneven.
In Act 1, Hester was quite funny in the sister-teasing “Trouble with Men” and the duo was rough and intense in the scene-closing “Run & Hide.” Likewise, in Act 2, Hester got a chance to shine with boyish exuberance in “Bye Room,” and the two had a touching closing number with “Every Good-Bye is Hello.” Throughout both acts there were touchingly sweet moments that allowed Farmer’s epic voice and presence to soar, but the material she had to work with just didn’t seem to be. . .well. . .big enough. I want to find a phrase that is the opposite of “sung-through musical”; that would be a musical in which some lyrics are spoken to music rather than sung. While that makes it easy to follow the story, it seems to be something less than musical. While I enjoyed the performers and their portrayals of their characters, this is not the kind of musical that makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack.
The four-piece chamber orchestra, under the musical direction of Joshua Wortham was quite good, with Wortham on keyboard, Michael Knowles on cello, Marissa Resmini on violin, and Nick Oyler on percussion. But again, at times the score was stunningly beautiful while often it disappeared into the background – not what one expects in a musical.
One of the most interesting aspects of John & Jen is that Jen is the same character for both acts, whereas John is Jen’s little brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. So, Hester has to, in effect, play two different roles with different personalities, growing up in different decades, opposite the same mother figure, while answering to the same name, John. Jen, the sister, promises to always be there for her little brother, but then he goes off to Vietnam and they never see each other again. Knowing the backstory of Act 1 gives the audience inside knowledge that helps us understand Jen’s overprotective parenting of her son.
The nature and familiarity of these relationships is what makes this an Acts of Faith production. Jen wants to replace her missing brother with her son, and it takes a “Talk Show” scene to expose her fears and a “Graduation” to open the door to a resolution. The device of using a talk show format, which almost but not quite involved the audience, to air one’s dirty laundry was a much-needed tension reliver and weirdly amusing break from the intensity of the relationships. Christmas traditions, feuding parents, Little League, rebellious children, first dates, leaving for college, differing political views, hippies, draft dodging (do today’s young people even know what the draft was?) are all familiar to most families, which may be why a few scenes may be misted not by the lighting designer but by the viewer’s own eyes.
Michael Jarrett has designed some lovely projections that carry us through the decades and life events of Jen and her two Johns, while Erin Barclay designed the lights, Frank Foster created the scenic elements that consisted of two straight-backed chairs on opposite sides of the stage with a storage bench stage center, and Linda Shepard designed the simple wardrobe that allowed Hester and Farmer to make subtle but key changes – a Christmas sweater, a blanket, a tie-dyed skirt – right on stage.
John & Jen is a tightly-woven, intense, and intimate musical and Hester and Farmer bring far more for it than it gives to them.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Jason Eib Photography