From The Fantasticks through West Side Story, we get an idea of what the stage musical is supposed to be: boy-meets-girl, complications, yadda-yadda. Well, forget it. In Andrew Lippa’s groundbreaking John and Jen, currently at the Redhouse, the two leads (that’s all there are) sing about every other emotion except romance. The show has plenty of conflict and rising action, twice over, because while there is one Jen throughout there are actually two Johns: Jen’s brother first, and secondly her son. Nothing you see or hear is the same old thing.
For all the complex and nuanced things John and Jen has to say about family relations, which we’ll get to in a moment, it’s the music that determines the audience embrace of the show. For serious musical theater buffs and cabaret fans, Andrew Lippa (born in 1964) is one of the reigning young geniuses, whose critical prestige exceeds his box-office receipts. His revision of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was recently performed by Not Another Theater Company at the State Fairgrounds, and his take on The Addams Family (2009) drew crowds in New York City. Yet more of his reputation is based with The Little Princess (2001) and the naughtiness of The Wild Party (2000), the latter produced by the Syracuse University Drama Department in October 2005.
Calling him “post-Sondheim” is a start because a tunesmith in the mold of Richard Rodgers or Frederick Loewe, Lippa is not. In many ways he’s actually more sophisticated than Sondheim, with dissonances and rapid shifts of rhythm punctuating contrapuntal passages. At the same time Lippa delivers more florid passion than we’re used to in Sondheim, but the beauty one recognizes in the score often rests on the ability of the singer to finesse its demands and difficulties, making the whole look so easy. Despite the laudable Redhouse policy of hiring the best local talent for recent shows, especially Twelfth Night, director Stephen Svoboda imported for the leads two singers: mezzo Rebecca Flanders, who has appeared with him before, and Equity player Samuel Bolen.
Although action over the two acts covers 40 years, from the early 1950s to the 1990s, the theme of control unites all the zigzags of the story line. Jen is only 6 years old when she greets her newborn baby brother in the buoyant opening number, “Welcome to the World.” Tom Greenwald’s lyrics sound like kid-lit, and there are moments when we feel the Redhouse could be competing with Gifford Family Theatre. Only there’s an ogre in this garden: an authoritarian father, who is never seen.
The children frolic in each other’s company but events offstage grow uglier as they witness a painful Christmas Eve fight between their parents. About the time of John’s seventh birthday, Jen notices a suspicious bruise on his face. “It was my fault,” he offers, assuming all guilt and reluctant to blame his father.
A breach begins to grow between the siblings when John is forced to attend Jen’s high school basketball finals, and that runs deeper when she goes off to college in the 1960s. This is where costumer Lisa Loen makes her presence more dominant. Both Flanders and Bolen are changing costumes almost between every number, Flanders by peeling off one of the five layers she began with. This saves time and never feels like a strip-tease.
To signal that we are in the 1960s, Flanders’ Jen enters in full Cher Bono mode, with beads and headband, while Bolen’s John is morphing into a young Republican. It’s bad enough that Jen indulges in controlled substances without apology, but she announces that she’s moving to Canada to live with her boyfriend who writes poetry, blows grass and protests, often all at the same time.
John, understandably, accuses Jen of rejecting everything that their father, and now John himself, stand for, and tension erupts in anger. In a quick change, John appears in a white naval uniform, assurance that he has volunteered for service in Vietnam, where he is soon killed. “I’m sorry, little brother,” Jen whispers at the end of Act I.
Jen’s never-seen draft-dodging boyfriend does not stick around long, but he leaves her with a son, named John, whom we meet in the second act at age 7. Jen has encouraged her son to play baseball, Uncle John’s sport, and she gives him her brother’s old baseball glove, which looks a “crappy” relic to the boy. Vowing that she will not fail the second John, she attends the boy’s games with mortifying attention and support, as he longs to break out of the vise-grip of her love.
In the second act Lippa also breaks away from the linearity of the plot. He has Jen and young John taking turns as mock talk-show hosts, giving their sides of emotional conflicts, complete with “applause” signs designed by Tim Brown to coax pity out of a pretend—and also the real—audience.
This line of tension rises as young John grows old enough to go away to college in New York City, as Jen had. John, a good student, might qualify for a scholarship to Columbia. And there’s the dilemma: Has Jen, in her compensating love, become as controlling as her hated father was in patriarchal bluster?
Both Flanders and Bolen are singers who act and both are well able to soar and gambol with the many demands of the music. Flanders has the advantage of being the same character in both acts, but Bolen gets to show off his nimble physicality by maturing twice in less than two hours. Bolen also sends a jolt through the audience when he turns up as a stiff-necked militarist.
John and Jen, which preceded the shows that made Lippa’s name, opened off-Broadway in 1995, yet continues to be performed regularly around the country, not only because of the composer’s cultish appeal but also because it is a chamber musical, ideal for modest venues and intimate spaces. In view of that, it’s surprising to see that both Flanders and Bolen come equipped with body mikes when they’re cavorting a few feet away from the Redhouse’s audience. Perhaps this need arises from the decision to have music director Zachary Orts hammer away at the electric keyboard, hugely amplified by sound engineer Blair Adour, as if John and Jen were being presented at Alliance Bank Stadium. In contrast, the cello accompaniment by Oriel Romano is highly affecting, and at a fraction of the volume.
This production runs through Saturday, June 2. See Times Table for information.