A pair of high quality performances anchors a lovingly staged boutique presentation of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1995 musical John & Jen.
A contemplative reflection on family ties, John & Jen explores the long shadow of domestic violence and the redemptive power of love. Empathetic characters and easily identifiable situations, along with smatterings of gentle humour, draw the audience into the characters’ lives and allow the dramatic moments to land with hefty impact.
Six-year-old Jen is excited to have a new little brother, John. The violent nature of their father is deftly woven into the siblings’ early bonding scenes, as we see them wait for Santa and plays “school.” As the years go by, John has a “be careful what you wish for” moment when he goes from grumpily resenting attending Jen’s basketball games to being devastated when she heads off to college in New York. It’s the 1960s and the internet has not been invented, so the pair corresponds by letters, but they grow apart and an angry reunion is followed by a tragedy that means their differences can never be resolved.
Act two starts afresh, cleverly mirroring and inverting some of act one’s scenes and songs. A 1980s talk show sequence condenses the passing of time and airs inner feelings and conflicts. The act reaches another affecting climax, this time providing a bittersweet resolution that hints at an optimistic future.
Terrifically talented singers, Brenton Crosier and Jaclyn De Vincentis impress from the opening notes of the show with the gorgeous quality of their singing voices. They are both strong actors as well, and, although they do not particularly look alike, they create believable family bonds.
Director Mark Taylor neatly downplays the childhood scenes, responding to the elegant simplicity of the libretto by avoiding the manic energy often adopted when adult actors play children (such as is usually seen in Blood Brothers). A delightful moment comes when the children enact the story of George Washington using shadow puppets. Storytelling is clear and involving, fulfilling the respect the book shows towards the audience’s intelligence. Taylor’s directing style is to create authentic interactions rather than having the actors cheat front as is seen in typical music theatre. This strongly supports the sense that we are watching real people rather than fictional characters, and enhances engagement.
In creating a chamber musical for only two performers, Lippa maintains intensity by flowing songs and scenes into each other with very few breaks, even for applause. Melodies are attractively appealing, and Greenwald’s lyrics are intelligent and economical.
In the extremely capable hands of music director Tyson Legg, Lippa’s score sounds marvelous. Although there are only three musicians, there is a wonderfully rich sound. Extensive and varied percussion, played by Dave George, is excellent.
When portraying scenes set in two different locations, Lippa often uses countermelodies, which can be enjoyed with nicely balanced volume and crisp diction thanks to the combination of Legg’s careful preparation and the singers’ skills.
De Vincentis is particularly strong when belting, and as her character ages there are ample opportunities for this. Cosier has the chance to play more than one character, and his open face clearly conveys when he switches between characters. Much as there a slightly stronger storyline and momentum in act one, the pair seems to really hit their strides in act two as mother and son (playing a difficult teenage boy, Cosier’s height is a distinct asset here).
Designer Sarah Tulloch provides an interesting scenic design with an abstract wooden construct and draped sheets, suggesting a children’s fort. Two sturdy wooden units house multiple hidden props easily accessed by the actors through handy hinged doors.
Costumes do not particularly suggest any of the eras across which the forty-year story is set. With so many period references in the text, attempting some accuracy in this regard should perhaps have been more of a priority. Still, the costumes are flexibly adaptive so as to be easily changed as the characters age.
Clearly a labour of love, this is quality music theatre, presented in an intimate setting at very affordable prices.
Pursued by Bear’s production of John & Jen plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 27 September 2015.
Photos: Kayzar Bhathawalla