Mixed Bag With “John & Jen” As Insight Presents This Small But Mighty Musical

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Photo: John Lamb

The Andrew Lippa score is gorgeous and there’s a lot of it- “John & Jen” is pretty much sung-through with two 45-minute acts and an unusual story by Lippa and Tom Greenwald. Insight Theatre Company brings us this rarely done show that explores the bond between brother and sister in the first act and, after a tragedy ends it, reveals act two with the sister and her son- who she has named after her brother.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spanning 1952 to 1971, Act One sees Jen welcoming her younger brother to the world and, as time moves on, we see the inseparable bond that has been built between them. But a case of abuse in the family leads to a split between the two and John joins the Navy and is deployed to Vietnam. Act Two (1972 to 1990) then sees the same bond being built between Jen and her son, John. This also is put asunder by circumstance and the different dynamic from brother and sister to that sister and her son. It’s a moving story and the song cycle that is the score and largely the book is simply breathtaking at times and highly entertaining most of the time.

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Photo: John Lamb

Musical director Larry D. Pry does a masterful job with this most difficult show musically. With he at piano, Adam Kopff on percussion and Christo Bachmann on cello, they always have complete command of the score and sound just amazing. Likewise Director Trish Brown moves the action along and hits all the right spots between sentimentality and humor. It is a moving story and she captures the essence of it. Tip of the hat as well to choreographer Taylor Pietz. She also seizes every moment and what it means to John and Jen as they travel a sometimes difficult road together. From a slow do-si-do in the first act to a very energetic and amusing “Little League” number in the second act, she dazzles with all the right moves in a show that is as heavily choreographed as it is blocked.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spencer Davis Milford is absolutely wonderful as the John the brother and John the son. He moves from little boy to maturity- twice, and acts and sings the part with dexterity. Jenni Ryan is Jen and she commands the stage from an acting standpoint but can’t seem to handle the upper register when singing this beautiful score. At times pitchy and often not able to hit the notes at all, it takes away from an otherwise splendid production. She may well fall into a more comfortable place with the music as the show continues but opening night was a bit of a letdown. It’s a shame because she really handles the role well and is adept at all the right touches as she ages while Spencer gets to play boy-to-man in both acts.

The clever multi-level set and poignant projections following their lives is the brilliant work of Kyra Bishop and, combined with the often subdued but effective lights of Oliver Littleton make for a wonderful look. Leah McFall’s costumes also work well for this family story that features both triumph and tragedy.

jj-porchBeing a collector of Broadway, off Broadway and everything else in the form of vinyl and CD’s for years, I’ve always admired Andrew Lippa’s scores and this one for “John & Jen” is very good indeed. Insight Theatre Company has brought it to our town and it’s worth the wait. Catch it now until July 31st. Give them a call at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information.

 

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