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A CurtainUp Review
John and Jen
By Jon Magaril
The book explores the essential bonds that tie, bend and break between brother and sister, as well as mother and son. It's easy to identify with these relationships; still, universality needs specificity and/or consistency to penetrate deeply. In both its content and current production, John and Jen traffics in genuine emotion but is limited by tilting towards the generic.
An older sister promises to protect her brother from danger, especially in the guise of their abusive father. When Jen leaves for college and stays away as she grows into adulthood, John hardens against her and the world. She has a son, whom she names John. This time, the push and pull between family members runs in the opposite direction. She holds tight to the boy, which only serves to drive him away.
The compare-and-contrast between the pair of relationships is nicely supplemented by recurring tropes of essential American rituals, such as celebrating Christmas, playing baseball, and leaving home for college. The libretto and lyrics fail to unleash the show's full potential by a lack of telling details.
Jen doesn't deepen much despite being on stage for most of the two-hour running time. Her personality develops in response to her father's anger. She recoils from his fight with her mother one Christmas and his hitting her brother after he's broken a drinking glass. She breaks her promise to protect her brother so she can escape.
Little of this strikes home because the the man and her reaction to him are barely dramatized. The mother and Jen's eventual husband are rarely mentioned. Indeed, the first half-hour features few specifics, in word or music, to clue us into time and place. Jen's wishes are blandly articulated. She vows "to be like an eagle/ wings as wide as an airplane" for instance, and "fly far away."
Inconsistency further aggravates the blandness of the words. Just as we get used to a You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown kind of timelessness, Paul Anka's name is used. Then each character, for the first time, narrates cliched phrases like the "generation gap" and the "red menace" to pin our teenaged pair to the Vietnam era. Lippa's music dips into a '60's pop vein briefly before returning to its prevailing style, which avoids referencing the mainstream models of the years depicted.
The second act breaks another of the show's patterns. After playing only Jen and two Johns, the pair briefly play other characters, TV talk show hosts, in an extended comic sequence. Just when the material needs to dig deeper, it trivializes the problems between this mother and son.
Silverstein's production plays into the material's flaws with drab production design. Sharp-edged geometric shapes, most in whooshing stroked of gray, dominate Steven C. Kemp's unilluminating set. Sydney Maresca's costumes contribute little, sometimes running counter to descriptions. John refers to his hippie sister's "unique" clothes and hard-to-wear bell bottoms when she's wearing a simple ribbed sweater in a basic color and a shapeless jean skirt.
Fortunately, the performances and music bolster the strong emotional lines connecting Jen to both Johns. Tony award nominee Kate Baldwin and recent college graduate Conor Ryan, appearing in his fourth New York musical in a year, match each other in their sterling voices and simple, direct charm. Lippa's music features several keepers. Throughout, cracker-jack young music director Lily Ling pounds her piano with dramatic flair. She and cellist Melanie Mason tirelessly elicit the loveliness in the score.
With "Hold Down the Fort," the show fires on all cylinders. Greenwald's lyrics evoke children's games, the military, loving and leaving in one simple phrase. If this were the show's norm, it would be a minor classic.
Jen sings repeatedly, "You've gotta think big, aim high." John and Jen features enough primal emotions and stirring moments to satisfy many and make others wish the creative team had thought a bit more clearly and aimed with a keener eye.