Conor and Kate A.K.A John and Jen

I’m not wild about Andrew Lippa…in fact, that is an understatement; in reality, there isn’t a single score he composed for a musical that I like.

That is, all except one…the exception has (and might always will be) John and Jen.

John and Jen is one of those musicals that should be seen and heard more often. In fact, I turned to my show-date Chloe and pondered out loud why it isn’t produced more often or higher up on the theatre consciousness. It’s one of a handful of plays/musicals that only requires two characters (translation: it’s not costly to produce). And the themes/relationships of the show - children and parents, brother and sister, mother and son - are so universal, audiences can relate to any one part of the story, if not, its entirety. It’s also a nice retrospective of America from the 50’s to the 90’s, as the story details how the strong bond between John and Jen (as brother and sister) at childhood is tested as they enter young adult and adulthood in the late-60’s, early-70’s (that dang Vietnam War, always a buzzkill).

And Keen Company’s revival - which just opened last week at Theatre Row - is a good watch, largely because Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin are the John and Jen pairing of your dreams and then some. 

Ryan’s performance really clicked into place with his perfect and nagging rendition of “Trouble with Men” - a new song that actually fits well with the rest of the production, go figure - as he snarks on Jen’s failed love conquests with teenage boys. John's fate at the end of the first act will never not be a crushing blow - believe me, just ask Jen - and Ryan takes it one step further by imbuing (brother) John with a calmness and wide-eyed naiveté. After each argument he has with Jen (which pretty much happens every other song at the end of the first Act), it is easy to take his side on things, not just because he is the younger brother, but with the disappointment and betrayal that Ryan channels through him.

And he is every bit as great in the second act too as (son) John, whom angsts it up when dealing with an overbearing mother and her misplaced guilt. But let’s talk about how perfectly-cast Kate Baldwin is and how much I love her. For starters, her voice is so unbelievably stop-in-your tracks beautiful that she can sing the alphabet and I’d play that recording on loop.

What was refreshing about Baldwin here is…well, she looks like she is having fun, all things considered. She can play the concerned, internally-conflicted sister/mom in her sleep (just look at every role she’s played on and Off-Broadway in the last six years), but in the second act, when she is full-tilt “Crazy Mom in the Bleachers” and during the Talk Show sequence, it was a pleasant sight to see her serve up some personality beyond “caring" or "sulking.” Jen has every possible shade to her on the emotion-spectrum - now that I think about it, she is one of the most flawed, yet realistic and well-written female characters in musical theatre - and needs a dynamite performer to flesh her out. Leave it to Baldwin to do right by the character.

Honestly, the only aspect about the production I was disappointed with was Steven Kemp’s TOTAL needle scratch of a set design. Believe me, I know - I am the first person to praise a set and the last person to criticize one, but it was hard to look past the oversized and utterly superfluous grey shards arranged on stage. They looked like cast-offs from a gritty, classic play, as if they are supposed to be a metaphor for King Lear’s demise or Macbeth’s insanity or some shit. Both Johns and Jen (see what I did there!) could integrate them as settings and props all the want, but I remain unconvinced that they were worth their while. But that is a minor set-back in the realm of things because there is good music, nostalgia and the talents of its two star performers to take in at John and Jen. Not bad for an Andrew Lippa show...not bad at all.

Tickets Provided by the Production

Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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