Review Excerpts

John and Jen simple, warm and heartfelt (January 27, 2006)
Richard Ouzounian
*** 1/2 (out of 4)

This musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald has no special effects, cast of thousands or over-hyped advance. It's a quiet piece, performed by two actors on a nearly bare stage. But if you think that means it doesn't have the power to entrance you, then you'd be very wrong.

There's something wonderful about returning the musical theatre to an art form that tells stories about real people with real emotions. Yes, you might say John and Jen is old-fashioned in that sense, but it also isn't afraid to address personal and political issues that are still very relevant today...

Lippa's music is wonderfully deceptive. It hums along with simple, memorable melodies but then dives into complex recapitulations and counterpoints that keep the ear alert. And Greenwald's lyrics, although occasionally simplistic, know how to get inside the skins of these spiky but loveable people.

But the real joy of the evening rests with the actors. Stephanie Roth manages to keep Jen from seeming the righteous pill she could have turned into, offering us instead a woman who manages constantly to feel the right emotion at the wrong time. Her voice is rich and true, her sensitivity is splendid.

Kyle Blair has the admittedly showier role of John and goes to town with it. Blair has the uncanny knack of managing to be childlike without ever seeming childish. His eyes can go from hopeful to hurt in an instant, while the smile underneath slowly melts like a snowflake in the sun.

But give him a comedy moment (like the scene in Act II where young John heads off to summer camp for the first time) and he knows how to make it soar. With the help of the cleverly minimalist choreography of Marc Kimelman, Blair lights up the stage with sheer performing energy.

And when he opens up in song, it's a joy just to sit there and listen.

Michael Jones has directed in straight-ahead fashion and the three-piece band led by Wayne Gwillim plays with distinction. The show is not much to look at, but that's not what you come to an evening like this for.

John and Jen is a musical unafraid to show its feelings and it's made for an audience unafraid to accept them. If that sounds like you, then I suggest you pay it a visit.

john & jen (February 4, 2006)
Robert Cushman
...At the opposite physical extreme of musical theatre the Acting Up company, which made its debut last year with Tick, Tick ... Boom, takes firm steps forward with John and Jen, a sturdier piece in a much superior production...

The performances, under Michael Jones's direction, are musically and dramatically first-rate. Stephanie Roth is both concerned and abrasive as a woman in whom the two qualities run together, the more so the older she gets. Kyle Blair, the superb jack of last year's Stratford Into the Woods, now plays boyhood again, twice, and he has great fun emphasizing the two Jons' different varieties of disgruntlement. He also has a great capacity for playing anger, excitement and hurt; he can be soaring and searing at the same time.

john & jen (February 2, 2006)
Christopher Hoile
Acting Up Stage Theatre Company's second production is the Toronto premiere of Andrew Lippa's 1995 musical john & jen. For most of its two hours, this amiable two-person show deals solely in generalities. What raises it out of the ordinary are the outstanding performances of Kyle Blair and Stephanie Roth. The musical covers the period from 1950 to 1990 in the life of Jen (Roth).

Roth has the widest emotional arc to cover and does so with great feeling and nuance. Blair infuses both Johns with youthful energy while subtly differentiating the two. To hear such fine, strong voices unmic'd is an added pleasure.

Stage Directions (February 3, 2006)
Kamal Al-Solaylee

This intimate New York musical from Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald revisits a brother-sister relationship (and a mother-son one) against the backdrop of American culture from the late 1950s through the 1980s. It's a sentimental, often predictable concoction that benefits greatly from director Michael Jones's simple staging and Wayne Gwillim's gentle musical direction. The real draw, however, is the sensational singing of golden boy Kyle Blair and a wise and wonderful Stephanie Roth.

john & jen (February 2006)
Jeniva Berger

The rarely explored relationship between siblings is beautifully captured in this chamber musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald... Under Michael Jones' direction, there's nothing that takes away from the strong nucleus of the show: the strength of filial ties that can bind us throughout our lives.

Kyle Blair, who charmed us as Jack in last Stratford's production of Sondheim's Into the Woods, is wide-eyed, vulnerable, sometimes petulant as young John, then angry when he feels his sister has deserted him, and indignant when she questions his patriotism. Also playing Jen's teenaged son John, Blair is in great voice and it rings out through the upper level theatre of the Walmer Theatre Centre like holiday chimes.

As good as Blair is, it is Stephanie Roth who captivates, from the young Jen in charge, to the hippy escapee, to the guilt of the bereft older sister who feels she never understood her brother's feelings. Roth can sing us through a raft of emotions just by sitting still. There are no real memorable tunes, but the lyrics are powerful. Roth has one great number, The Road Ends Here, that stands out because of its heartrending familiarity. Sung after she realizes that she has to let her son find his own way in the world just as she did, I don't think that anyone could hear it without his or her own memories of growing up or growing older.

The Acting Up Theatre Company which has the admirable mandate of using contemporary musical theatre as a tool to draw younger audiences to musical theatre performances, has a winner with john & jen. But John and Jen's story is for anyone who has gone through living and loving and is all the wiser for it.

john & jen (February 2006)
Mark Andrew Lawrence

A show titled JOHN AND JEN may conjure of visions of a love story, and that is ultimately what it is, detailing the love between a brother and sister and a mother and son.  First produced at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut , and later seen at the Lamb’s theatre in New York in 1995, the musical by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa has developed a huge cult following thanks to an excellent original cast recording.

As the titular characters Kyle Blair and Stephanie Roth are both riveting. This is not a show about special effects. The performers take us on an emotional journey creating the magic on stage. Act One charts John’s life, as the younger brother of the loving and protective Jen. In Act Two, Jen raises her son John (named for his late uncle) with the same love but becoming to overly protective.

That’s the simple premise. But what holds the show together is the depth of emotion it stirs, thanks to the talented performers working in collaboration with director Michael Jones.

Jones has staged the piece in a unit apartment set, but keep the action fluid so it never becomes static. As Jen, Stephanie Roth has several chances to dazzle us with her powerful voice. Kyle Blair brings a sweetness and simplicity to the role of John having without ever becoming cloying.  As terrific as they are individually, when they team up the fireworks really begin. As with any family they have their good times and bad times but more than anything else they have each other.

The opening night audience twice called the cast back for another bow and a deserved one too.