John And Jen
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
“John and Jen,” which is labeled a musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald should really be considered a miniature dramatic opera or concert piece. The work is composed in style of Steven Sondheim and consists of a series of dissonant recitatives and arias which require some getting used to. Presented by Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut in its intimate black box theatre, the audience (seated only a few feet away) cannot escape the very emotional presentation of the players who are singing most of their lines accompanied by very competent musicians -- pianist Max Haymer and percussionist Chris Johnson.
Tommy Foster as John and Catherine Porter as Jen in MTC Mainstage’s production of John & Jen.
After adjusting to the repetitious words and melodies, a touching tale reveals the close relationship between a brother and sister growing up against the background of the 1960’s and Vietnam War. Anyone who remembers their sibling relationships or were raising children during this turbulent era of social change can identify with the themes of love and the burden of having to let go. In addition, what makes the piece relevant is the fact that change is constant, family relationships are timeless (we’re stuck with them for good or for bad) and no matter what tricks fate may play on our lives, the helpless feelings we are sometimes left with always remain inside while we somehow manage to go on.
Catherine Porter plays the protective sister, Jen who mixes enthusiastic verve with quiet compassion and maternal tenderness. The thin plot unfolds mainly through Jen’s eyes. Porter’s body language and emotional voice modulations expresses the feelings one undergoes as time passes and the two siblings must grow up and go their own ways.
Tommy Foster, who exhibits a strong, pleasant voice of several ranges, plays John, the dependent younger child. He very effectively seeks security and comfort from his sister against a background of dysfunctional parents and a hostile world. As John eventually grows to manhood he finds that he must prove his independence in order to be recognized by his aloof father. The role requires extreme character development which under the direction of Kevin Connors, Foster masters very believably.
The piece is an intense, emotional experience despite its hard to appreciate musical style. Although the second act, sung to “Every Goodbye is Hello, was not needed, the similar repetition of circumstances between an adult Jan and her young son, also named John, serves to drive home the irony of life through lyrics “… sometimes a time to let go.”