John & Jen, Book by Andrew Lippa & Tom Greenwald, Music by Andrew Lippa, Lyrics by Tom Greenwald. Directed by Trey Compton. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Caitlin Mesiano and Michael Luongo in Act Two; photo: provided
"Take care of things!"
Caitlin Mesiano and Michael Luongo; photo: provided
It isn't every day that I see the same show twice at two different theaters in two different formats by two different playwrights and two different directors. Especially when one is a straightforward play and the other is an abstruse musical. Thursday, July 30, 2015 was just such a day. "Memory House" by Kathleen Tolan at the Chester Theatre came first at a matinee followed by "John & Jen" by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald at the Theater Barn in the evening. Both feature only two actors; both deal with a parent trying to come to grips with the realities of a teenager. Both are troubled plays and both are rewarding and enriching experiences, each in its own separate fashion. They both even feature an actress named Caitlin. You will read of one here and the other in its proper spot on the site. I hope you will read both for they now exist for me as inseparable.
I say abstruse because the final moments of this fine musical leave us without the decisions that will finally bring satisfaction or a lack of it to the two principals. Jen wants to hold on to her son John for as long, and in as many ways, as possible. John wants to go to New York and pursue his destiny but he also wants to regain his mother's trust and love and she clearly doesn't want him to leave. This final problem is not resolved at this high school graduation even though the more upbeat flavor of the final number "Every Goodbye is Hello" would have us understand that they now have an understanding.
If that is confusing, you need to know that John in Act Two, Jen's son, is a physical and emotional recreation of Jen's baby brother John from Act One. Given a chance to relive parts of her childhood and youth and to salvage a most meaningful relationship that soured for her is what drives Jen. Hers is not an easy road and the bumps in it are often of her own creation.
Jen is the main character of this show. She is the same Jen in both acts which take us from 1952 to 1990. Jen is played here by Caitlin Mesiano who takes on the difficult task of playing every aspect of this woman from the age of seven to forty five. Influenced heavily by the changing times through which she lives, Jen is a literal discography of the period music that influences her choices: Paul Anka, the Beatles, Acid Rock and Michael Jackson. Mesiano manages nicely to show the emotional changes her character evolves through.
Michael Luongo has a harder role to play: two young men named John who must each live out his early years in Jen's shadow. Not the same, they are shoehorned into many of the same situations and decisions. When son John finds himself with a new direction he is not really prepared for it and when Jen tries to shelter him from the process it is a wedge between them. Luongo plays this moment with the same sort of resignation his earlier John exhibited when making his own big decision. In Act One this leads to disaster. In Act Two we just don't know where he is going. The shades of John(s) are compelling in this production.
Trey Compton has used obvious and important images to project the ever-moving time periods of this play. He has done a neat job here, each scene specific in its look (thanks to costume designer Shimra Jamie Fine) on a fascinating set by Abe Phelps where picture frames represent windows, doors, pictures and something more - the vague future to be fulfilled. Compton has moved his three characters through their respective periods with grace and style as they themselves move set pieces to create playing areas that are meaningful. Compton and Phelps have employed geometric platforms, and open spaces to provide even more variety on a single unit set. Allen Phelps lighting is perfection, ever changing and yet ever constant.
This is a nearly through-composed musical play and the melodies and lyrics carry the bulk of the play. Lippa's music is charming, if not memorable, and smacks of early Sondheim ("Sorry-Grateful" from Companykept coming to mind throughout the play). Greenwald's lyrics are clever and never seemed forced which was very nice. Altogether it is an intriguing musical play about the need for a parent and/or surrogate parent to come to an understanding with her child, the same theme as the other play mentioned above.
This show is a very professional, very enjoyable and very intriguing journey through song into the hearts and minds of people for whom love and protection become overly intertwined. The opening night audience was highly enthusiastic about the production and so was I. Go see it.
John & Jenplays through August 9 at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.