A pair of outstanding lead performances highlight the first local production in as far back as I can remember of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s john & jen, costars Ann Villella and Taylor Minckley alone providing more than enough reason to celebrate the 1995 off-Broadway gem’s all-too-brief arrival at North Hollywood’s Secret Rose Theatre.
Charting both the Act-One relationship of a sister and brother on the rocky road from childhood to young adulthood and the equally prickly mother-son bond that makes up the chamber musical’s Act Two, john & jen takes audiences on a journey from John Tracy’s 1952 birth (with six-year-old sister Jen by his side) through the Eisenhower ‘50s, the Kennedy Camelot years, the Vietnam War era, and the Reagan ‘80s, with Jen’s son taking over in Act Two for the uncle after whom he was named.
Though john & jen may resonate more fully with audience members whose memories reach back to the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and/or ‘80s, anyone who’s ever had or been a mother, a son, a sister, or a brother (i.e. just about everyone) can identify with Jen Tracy and the two Johns in her life.
There’s teenage Jen’s defense of a seven-year-old brother against the blows of an abusive father, a protectiveness that eventually gives way to sibling rivalry and a desire for independence shared by her brother, albeit in markedly distinct fashion. Later, a 20/30/40something Jen finds her relationship with her son on a similar path, though not necessarily with the same outcome.
If john & jen’s 1995 debut represented the work of a then largely unknown 30-year-old composer, Andrew Lippa’s later successes—2000’s The Wild Party and 2009’s The Addams Family—along with last year’s Big Fish make it hard to fathom why it’s taken so long for john & jen to inspire a production in a city as rich in theater as ours is.
Yes, Lippa’s earlier songs may not be as instantly hummable as those of his more recent shows (there’s more than a bit of Adam Guettel or Michael John LaChiusa in the john & jen “soundtrack”), but like the melodies of Lippa’s two contemporaries, john & jen’s dozen-and-a-half songs are the kind that grow on you, and several of them—“The Road Ends Here” and “Every Goodbye Is Hello”—are downright gorgeous.
With Greenwald’s book featuring minimum dialog, it’s up to the book writer’s deft lyrics to tell john & jen’s story/stories, which they do with commendable coherence, songs and spoken words adding up to a musical that both entertains and moves … and packs an emotional punch, particularly as performed by Villella and Minckley under Kyle Villella’s assured direction.
Leading lady Villella gets the richer of the two roles in Jen, both emotionally and in song, and the Georgia native gives a confident, powerful, and ultimately gut-wrenching star turn, singing in a soprano that alternately soars with crystal clarity and belts out with raw emotion.
Fresh out of the University Of Colorado At Boulder with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Neuroscience, and Theatre no less, Minckley’s charming performance introduces Los Angeles audiences to a musical theater lead with vocal/acting chops to match his boy-next-door good looks and charm.
Recent London-to-L.A. transplant Katie Clarke not only provides expert musical direction but letter-perfect keyboard accompaniment alongside percussionist Chris Novicki.
That being said, keyboard-percussion volume levels are at times so high as to drown out even voices as strong as Villella’s and Minckley’s, all too often rendering Greenwald’s lyrics virtually incomprehensible.
An uncredited scenic design makes simple but effective use of the Secret Rose’s wide “black-rectangle” stage, allowing director Villella to emphasize the distance between sister- brother and mother-son. The production’s lighting design and character-apt costumes are more than adequate too. Still, Sugar Fix Productions might in future consider seeking out theater design majors at local universities to give upcoming productions a more competitively professional luster while still remaining “on budget.”
Also, while Sugar Fix’s desire to go green is to be saluted, theatergoers expect—and deserve—to have production credits, bios, and song list in hand, both to peruse before the show and to take home after (or recycle), and all those involved with the production deserve to have their contributions recognized and remembered for posterity. (A single-sheet, recyclable program/ticket would also eliminate the need to ink each patron’s hand before entering the theater.)
john & jen is produced by Ann Villella and Jamie Bullock for Sugar Fix Productions. Jake Bucher is stage manager.
Following a decade-long wait since first hearing the Original Cast Recording of the show that introduced Andrew Lippa to the musical theater world, I could hardly have been more enthusiastic about getting the chance to see john & jen at last. Aside from some fixable sound mixing problems, J&J’s Sugar Fix Production debut did not disappoint, and with a mere two-weekend run, this is must-see-right-away entertainment for musical theater devotees.
Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.
November 7, 2014