John and Jen
Susan Elkin | 03 Aug 2021 16:35pm
All photos: Danny Kaan
I may be prejudiced (all right – I am) but I was predisposed towards this show as soon as I saw the band: two violins, cello and keyboard – almost a classical quartet. I guessed we were in for something lyrical, thoughtful and human and I was right.
John and Jen is a two hander chamber musical dating from 1991 but composers, Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald worked with director Guy Retallack to update it for this production so the long time trajectory now ends in 2023. I don’t suppose that was difficult to do because the story and the issues are timeless. And although it is firmly set in America the messages are universal.
It’s a play in two very distinct halves. In the first John (Lewis Corney) and Jen (Rachel Tucker) are siblings growing up in a troubled, often abusive household. Jen, who is older does as much as she can to protect her little brother but it isn’t enough – she is, after all, a teenager with a life to lead. By the interval she seems to have failed him.
But, in an unexpected twist (no spoilers) she then gets a second chance. Of course she tries so hard that she comes within a hair’s breadth of blowing it. Thus the whole piece is about family relationships, nurturing loved ones, respecting each other and letting go. So it speaks to every one of us.
Tucker is convincing at all stages of Jen’s life – whether she’s being a stroppy teenager or an overzealous middle aged woman. The music, which is often naturalistically sung dialogue rather than songs or numbers, suits her voice and we hear a wide range of registers. There’s a pretty spectacular full belt number in the second half which got a spontaneous round of applause on press night.
She and Corney have palpable chemistry between them. He finds a pleasing range of moods for John – good as trusting child, an anxious adolescent, a troubled young adult and there’s a hilarious baseball scene. I liked the way Lippa sometimes puts John’s tenor line higher than Jen’s mezzo one in duets – it changes the dynamic in their relationship at times.
And as for that band, yes they make a lovely sound in a pretty complex score blending together attractively with music director Chris Ma on keys. It’s a nice touch to have them in full view at the side of the stage.