REVIEW: John & Jen - 2015 Off-Broadway Cast
Earlier this year, Andrew Lippa’s John & Jen, his first musical, with lyrics by Tom Greenwald, had a marvelous off-Broadway production at the Clurman Theatre, produced by the Keen Company. Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan starred in this challenging and moving two-hander, more than 20 years after the first production at Goodspeed Opera House. The original production gained a sort of cult following, no doubt thanks to the original cast album that featured Carolee Carmello. The 2015 production was followed by a new cast recording, and though it has some minor faults and often tries to turn the show into a Broadway spectacle, the stellar voices of Baldwin and Ryan are some of the finest performances recorded from the last theatre season.
John & Jen is a tour de force for the actors and musicians combined. Act One is the story of Jen (Kate Baldwin), the protective older sister who gets involved in the 1960s counterculture, and John (Conor Ryan), the idealistic younger brother who enlists to fight in Vietnam. In Act Two, we find Jen as a single mother, dealing with both the loss of her younger brother and raising her precocious son, whom she named John in her brother’s memory.
John & Jen is an intimate show, and the Keen Company production was true to that. Performed in a small space, the actors didn’t even use microphones (this was achieved in part by eliminating the drum/percussion part from Jason Robert Brown’s original orchestrations, but it is more of a testament to the vocal power of Baldwin and Ryan). Completely sung-through, the show is not easy to perform successfully. One wouldn’t suspect the inherent difficulties after listening to Baldwin and Ryan, though. Baldwin demonstrates her depth as an actor and that she has one of the best voices in musical theatre today. Relative newcomer Ryan may be young, but his skills betray his age: his roles in the show would be intimidating for an actor of any level, but Ryan tackles them with aplomb and succeeds.
Themes of innocence - the embracing and the betrayal of it - pervade the work. Baldwin’s renditions of the emotional “The Road Ends Here” and “Hold Down the Fort,” coupled with Ryan’s “It Took Me a While” and the energetic “Bye Room," give better insight into the difficulties of some of life's stages than most other recent musicals. John & Jen culminates in “Every Goodbye Is Hello.” It may be a clichéd line, but the actors blend and perform with an underlying urgency that makes the song and idea sound fresh and original.
The new cast recording has a song that was written for this production. “Trouble With Men” is an Act One feature for Ryan, and while he performs it well, the song itself is the weakest part of the album. It doesn’t have the excitement of most other songs, settling instead into some of Lippa’s later compositional traits rather than the youthful vigor that runs throughout the rest of the show.
This recording also has new orchestrations: the added strings and percussion are often heavy-handed and betray the intimate nature of the show. The uncredited musicians fill out what once was a lean backing for the singers. (The production’s music director/pianist Lily Ling and cellist Melanie Mason are credited, as are the original orchestrations by Brown and Lippa. It is unclear who did the new orchestrations, what musicians are performing them, or even what the exact instrumentation is.) I don't believe that a cast album should always accurately reflect the show it's from, and recordings add parts to the orchestra frequently enough that it's become common practice. In this case, however, Lippa's score is better served by the smaller instrumentation.
Still, though, the album is more than satisfying. Baldwin easily plays humorous (“Think Big”) and serious (“Just Like You”). Ryan should soon be a star based on how he tackles “Talk Song” and “It Took Me a While.” The complete ending sequence (“The Road Ends Here,” “That Was My Way,” and “Every Goodbye…”) puts this perfect pairing of actors together in some of the finest moments on the album.
One of the pleasures of this John & Jen recording is hearing Lippa’s music performed strongly and wisely. The show was past-due for a well-executed revival, and while the cast album would have been better served by remaining small and avoiding the intrusive new orchestrations, that is not a reason to avoid placing this album in frequent playing rotation. The performances of Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan expose a deeper side to this score. It was a joy to see them perform the material, one of Lippa's best scores, live, and the release of this album preserves their remarkable interpretations.
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John & Jen - 2015 Off-Broadway Cast john & jen Jason Robert Brown Carolee Carmello Tom Greenwald Kate Baldwin Conor Ryan Toggle Additional (4)