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'John & Jen' - Vest Pocket Tuner Beguiles

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin in John & Jen.
(©Carol Rosegg)

Spanning nearly four decades and encompassing everything from the Viet Nam War to the rise of talk television in the late 1980s, Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1995 musical John & Jen, now being revived by the Keen Company at Theatre Row, would hardly seem to be an intimate affair. And yet, as it focuses on its titular heroine and her relationship with her younger brother and then her son (who both share the name John), the show is simply a vest pocket tuner, which, thanks primarily to sterling performances from Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, beguiles.

Lippa and Greenwald, who co-wrote the book for this show, split the action into two parts. During the first act, audiences meet Jen (Baldwin) and her younger brother John (Ryan) as they grow up in a less-than-model 1950s household. Propelled by the abuse they suffer at the hands of their (unseen) father, the two forge what they believe will be an unbreakable alliance. Once Jen has fled to New York for college, however, John finds himself on his own, and while his sister experiments with drugs as well as the free love and anti-war movements, he retreats into finding ways to please their dad, ultimatel enlisting in the Navy.

The show’s second act flashes forward to Jen in adulthood as she attempts to raise her teenage son on her own. Mourning for the lost opportunities that she had with her brother, Jen does her utmost to mold her son (again Ryan) into the image of her brother and to finally make good on protecting someone no matter what. Naturally, as John matures into young adulthood, he can only see his mother’s actions as overprotective and stifling, and much like as she did when she was younger, he rebels.

Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, Baldwin and Ryan both plumb their respective roles, often with surprising nuance. Perhaps most impressively, neither performer cloys as they tackle the sections of the show when the characters are pre- and just-pubescent, and in Baldwin’s case, as Jen matures, there’s a sparkle of wizened impishness that surfaces. Further both are in terrific voice, traversing Lippa’s mod-sounding melodies with surety and tearing into the show’s more soaring anthems with panache.

But, even as theatergoers can appreciate Baldwin and Ryan’s work, they may find that some the show’s blatant sentimentality a bit too much to bear, from the Christmas Eve tunes that start each act to the throw-away number “Bye Room” in the second act, during which Jen’s son bids adieu to his playthings as he heads off to camp. It doesn’t help in these moments that this new production uses an orchestration for piano and cello only. Stripping the music of it original sound (which was a small combo with percussion), only means that despite its inherent variances, the score takes on a certain melancholy monotony.

Additionally, a new song for this production, “Trouble With Men,” only enhances a sense of cuteness in the squabbling siblings. In it, John jokes about the boy-trouble that Jen’s having in high school. It replaces a meatier number that carried more weight dramatically as even in antagonism brother and sister grew closer.

It’s the feel-good sense of this new song that eventually comes to permeate the show as a whole, and were it not for Baldwin and Ryan, this two-hander might be more than theatergoers could bear. But they manage to imbue the entirety of the show with a charming quality that brings to mind the sepia-toned television show, The Wonder Years, and as winter weather continues to chill New Yorkers, there’s a welcome warmth to be had in John & Jen.

---- Andy Propst

John and Jen plays at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: keencompany.org.