Arts & Entertainment » Theater

Theater Review | ‘John and Jen’


Musical theater often brings to mind jazz hands, ensemble show-stoppers, and maybe a crashing chandelier. But “John and Jen, ” a two-person, sung-through show playing at  Blackfriars Theatre through November 5, belongs to a subcategory of musicals that are small, intimate, and character-driven.

While not widely known, this obscure musical has fierce devotees, including director Scott Scaffidi. In 2010, Scaffidi produced and starred in a production in NYC as John with current Blackfriars artistic director Brynn Tyszka as Jen. Now, Tyszka reprises her role with the capable Philip Detrick as her co-star. The team’s deep familiarity with and passion for this show comes through in this production.

In a genre dominated by boy-meet-girl romances that always end with a wedding, “John and Jen” refreshingly centers a different type of love: sister-meets-brother. The show opens in the 1950s, where a young Jen peers into a baby crib and welcomes her new-born brother into the world.

The first half of the show jumps through pivotal moments in the siblings’ youth and adolescents, dropping in on their relationship every few years. It covers the range of messy sibling dynamics, from relying on each other to cope with a father who slaps them to fighting over embarrassing each other in public.

From left, Philip Detrick as John and Brynn Tyszka as Jen. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS, GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • From left, Philip Detrick as John and Brynn Tyszka as Jen.

The second, and more theatrically interesting, act jumps to the late 1980s, when Jen is a single mom raising a teenage son, also named John. The double casting (Dietrich plays both Johns) adds a layer of subtext sorely missing from the first act, offering a glimpse into how the trauma in Jen’s youth affects how she raises her son. Echoes of the first act reappear in Christmas scenes about Santa and baseball games. This act has one of the most engaging scenes in the show; a musical montage of a talk-show styled interview in which mother and son each air grievances about the other.

The 90-minute show is almost entirely sung through, an impressive feat for both Dietrich and Tyszka, two strong vocalists backed by a tight band consisting of piano (music director Andy Pratt), cello (Brian Donat), and percussion (Alex Durr). This is the first musical composed by Andrew Lippa, who later wrote Broadway shows with much catchier scores, including “Big Fish” and “The Addams Family.” The music is pleasantly mellow but forgettable, accompanied by coherent but bland lyrics written by Tom Greenwald.

Scott’s direction allows actors to make full use of the stage so that even relatively mundane actions—cheering in a baseball game, packing for summer camp—are visually interesting. The set design by Allen Wright Shannon includes a lovely attic roof that resembles the outline of a parachute (evoking the colorful parachute the siblings seek refuge in when they need a hiding place).

This show unabashedly wants its audience to cry, embracing heavy subject matter like grief and messy family dynamics. In the most emotionally charged argument of the first act, the siblings fight about the Vietnam War. Though set in the 1970s, the way American nationalism can damage family relationships continues to resonate.

Although the show successfully conveys familial tension, some moments are off-putting for the wrong reasons. The script follows in the unfortunate footsteps of “Carousel” as another American musical that portrays domestic violence as a misguided expression of love, with one character half-apologizing for slapping another by singing, “I loved you too strong.” There are also gaps in the script that would have helped make the relationships more nuanced and believable, such as more explanation around the father’s abuse, or anything at all about Jen’s life outside of the men in her life.

Based on the small but engaged audience at the Friday viewing, the lack of character development didn’t lessen the emotional impact. If you cried over “This Is Us” you will probably appreciate the show’s heightened emotions and the messiness of the family dynamics. “John and Jen” proves musicals don’t need a tap dance break to entertain and move.