The chamber musical John & Jen which is being staged at Parkland’s Second Stage Theatre by Armadillo Productions, as directed by Stephen Fiol (stage) and Cara Chowning (music), is an ambitious choice for any aspiring pair of actors. The couple must evolve through two generations of characters and forty years of costumes, mindsets, and world- and life-changing events. Filling the roles of John, Jen, and John during the sung-through two-hour show filled with complicated time signatures and complementary harmonies would be a challenge for any performer at the height of training and practice. Kyle Klein II and Sophie Lanser are two young and energetic actors who face that challenge head-on.
The staging was sparse but creative, providing two gradients of pillars to hold props and a few black crates to become whatever furnishings were needed. The nature of the show made costume changes difficult, but with a few convertible pieces and accessories, prop-and-costume mistress Sheri Doyle got both characters through all of those years of button-down shirts and miniskirts. Being a sung-through work made the music almost non-stop, and the performances of Stephanie Swearingen (piano), Barbara Hedlund (cello) and Sam Carroll (percussion) were a firm support for the actors.
Both performers are experienced in musical theatre and know how to project, with clear and strong voices prepared for the difficult meters and dissonant chords. Ms. Lanser approached every song with a big grin, and at times it was clear she had to hold back to not overpower the mic she wore. Mr. Klein had to be more careful during either John’s more explosive spoken moments, as both his characters were written as confrontational boys who could erupt at any time. The two were adequately comfortable with each other, and with their roles, but they never seemed to gel in either relationship: sister/brother or mother/son. Each actor knew how they fit into the narrative and into the other character’s life, but they never seemed to really become united, even during the most emotional scenes.
One thing that struck me as a probable cause for this lack of cohesiveness was the hurried nature of the story. To get through two generations in just as few hours, there needed to be some condensing. John & Jen does this through two montage songs: “Timeline” in Act I and “Talk Show” in Act II. Both of these take the audience through more than half a decade by having the characters interact through letters and…by appearing on a TV program (?)…to gloss over major moments in world history and personal development. For me, the historical aspect of spanning 1952-1990 was a big draw, but I felt let down by the script’s treatment of the passage of time.
Still, the actors do get a chance to explore differences in social thought, especially parenting, as it changed through the years. In the fifties, both children are beaten by their father – this isn’t a spoiler as it is mentioned in the very first song – and it creates different reactions in each child. By the early seventies, Klein is visibly puffed with pride at the strength of his dad, and displays mixed emotions about emulating it before eventually embracing it and soon channeling the rage that comes along with it, all while Lanser’s Jen is horrified and distraught that her brother has become the thing she wants to escape. When it’s Jen’s turn to parent during the eighties, she tries everything to relieve her guilt by treating her son like her dead brother while avoiding the mistakes of her father. It’s an awful lot of concept to attempt to convey, especially for someone who has never been either abused or a parent. Thankfully, the creepy lyrics of “Old Clothes” and “Christmas II” make it blatantly clear that Jen really is trying to turn her son John into her brother, and it was actually very uncomfortable to watch.
Even dismissing the disturbing bits, several of those conflicted moments felt fairly hollow or flat. So much of Jen’s life is covered by one person, one young woman who in real life is still experiencing the middle of Act I. John – either John – has a lot of significant emotion: either coping with an abusive father or a smothering mother expecting him to fill the shoes of a dead uncle he’s never met. Each of these roles requires more than empathy or imagination, they need a significant pool of life experience to draw from and emote accordingly. From their performances, I’m not certain that either actor has access to such an affecting resource from which to project that kind of emotion. That’s fortunate for both Mr. Klein and Ms. Lanser as people, but it is less so for such a wrought production.
Overall, John & Jen was problematic for me. It was clearly created to be an emotional drama underscored by complex melodies and relationships evolving over time. It was sprinkled with patriotism as inspired by abuse, rebellion that becomes overcompensation and eventually codependence. On top of that, I think this production was a simple matter of overreach; this just isn’t a play for a teenager to attempt. Having youth and energy is good for the physical demands of the roles, but it results in a lack of emotional depth. However, because the young adults are both proficient singers, I spent a mostly pleasant evening at the theatre, feeling nostalgic.
John & Jen is playing at Parkland’s Second Stage Theatre and is brought to you by Armadillo Productions. This week’s performances will be Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. or Sunday, March 5th at 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 general admission with discounts for students, seniors, and children. Call 312-788-7236 to purchase, or order online.
All images by Scott Wells...
Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.