John & Jen was the first musical written by Andrew Lippa, who later brought us The Wild Party, The Addams Family and Big Fish. Having seen the epic Big Fish on Broadway last year and felt the score to be a masterpiece, I was intrigued to discover what this composer would bring us in a small-scale piece. I wasn’t disappointed.
I have to admit to not being much of a fan of The Wild Party, but I am growing to love Lippa’s writing style despite this. Here, he brings us a virtually through-sung musical for just two performers, that takes us on the journey of two relationships: brother and sister, and then mother and son. The piano barely stops all evening, and most of the story is told through often-complex song. Being a huge fan of the clever writing of Jason Robert Brown and Sondheim, complexity always appeals to me, and here it served the challenging dynamics of the relationships very well.
In this production, the role of John was played by Martin Neely, and Jen by Jessica Sherman. Both are seasoned professional performers and they bring together two wonderfully accomplished performances. Jessica Sherman somehow reminded me of a younger Jenna Russell, both in appearance and acting through song skills – high praise indeed! Beautiful vocals teamed with a compelling performance throughout drew us into her story from the first moment we met her as a young child, and we sympathise with her easily despite her neuroses thanks to Sherman’s sensitive portrayal of her plight. Martin Neely is required to show greater versatility, as he portrays two characters as they transition from birth to a young adult, and he very successfully achieves this with tremendous energy, impressive characterisation and vocal diversity. Childlike mannerisms are not overplayed and one is allowed to feel connected to the character and suspend disbelief easily throughout as he grows up.
This is a very challenging piece for the actors who are both onstage throughout the entire piece, and the staging was cleverly designed to help tell this story which spans 39 years in time. The set is simple, but through clever use of small props and minor costume changes (often on-stage), it was always very clear where we were in the timeline.
A mention must go out to Musical Director Gary Jerry, who plays relentlessly for the duration of the show, a talented pianist indeed, and the piece has been sensitively handled in terms of managing the cast’s vocals.
To find such a high standard of performance in a theatre above a pub in Guildford is a rare treat. John and Jen only runs for ten days and I urge you to support this production, which would be perfectly at home in a small West End venue in the same way as The Last 5 Years has paid visits to London in the past.
Review by Nikki Laurence
John & Jen, the acclaimed and moving American musical, will be Guildford Fringe Theatre Company’s first show of 2014. John & Jen is a two-hander set in the USA and follows the funny, tender and moving relationship between a brother and a sister, and a mother and a son. Written by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, the show opened Off-Broadway in 1995 to rave reviews, and this staging, from 7-17 May at The Star Inn, will offer a rare chance to see this little-performed modern classic.
Guildford Fringe Theatre Company are over the moon to producing this musical, continuing its promise to bring top class, professional theatre to unconventional spaces in Guildford.
Venue: The Back Room of The Star Inn, Quarry Street, Guildford.
Dates 7th to 17th May
Time: 8pm start