THEATER REVIEW: Skeleton crew makes for full-bodied performance

JOHN & JEN by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald/ Theater Barn

YES, A COMPOSER, two singer-actors and a pianist can effectively fill an evening with a simple, touching story. There are others involved, of course, and at Theater Barn all are accomplished pros.

For “John & Jen,” composer Andrew Lippa and lyricist Tom Greenwald have not twisted themselves into knots in pursuit of innovation. The score is melodious, harmonically more adventurous than classic Broadway, varied and expressive. It is not quite through-composed, but close. The score is nicely played by musical director Kevin Francis Finn. (The addition of a cello is a wonderful idea that doesn’t contribute in this production because it seldom can be heard.)

The story follows Jen and her brother John, six years her junior, from John’s infancy through Jen’s middle age. Family dynamics are not “Leave It to Beaver.” In Act I, the story zooms through the ’50s, hippy-druggy ’60’s, and Vietnam ’70’s to establish the interdependence of their relationship. Act II drives intriguingly through to a too-easy resolution.

Trey Compton’s direction features lots of attractive, tell-the-audience, straightforward delivery. There is a good deal of moving around of chairs and some pushing of Abe Phelps’ big, unlovely but highly functional box, which houses most of the props. In Compton’s staging—nay, “choreographing” of the beginning of Act II, there is a tour de force number for John, played by Michael Luongo. It allows the actor’s remarkable singing, acting, moving gifts to roar. In fact, it is the theatrical high point of the evening.

Caitlin Mesiano as Jen has one of those wonderful stage faces and all the acting intelligence and versatility to go with it. Vocally, probably by current misguided casting necessity, she has succumbed to the dread nasal disease, which causes sustained high notes to go straight and pinched. I know, it’s fashionable–a fashion dictated by demented 13-year-olds. Mesiano definitely need not be ruled by demented 13-year-olds. Occasionally there is a hint of her real voice, of which it would be nice to hear more.

Abe Phelps’ set is basically six rectangles, a ramp and a box. It works perfectly over the show’s decades and is transformed by some especially nice lighting designed by Allen Phelps.

“John & Jen” runs through Sunday, August 9, followed by the deservedly indestructible “Fantasticks,” August 13th through the 23rd. Reserve tickets at 518 794-8989.

 

 

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