Sunday, May 27, 2018
Stage

Review: 'John & Jen' is a rich family portrait

ST. PETERSBURG — Right from the beginning, John & Jen gets its principal point across, as 6-year-old Jen sings Welcome to the World to her newborn brother, John.

"The people you love the most are also the ones who make you cry," she croons, leaning into his crib. "I'm not sure why."

The bond between siblings is at the heart of John & Jen, now playing at Freefall Theatre, and through that prism, this intimate, two-actor musical by Andrew Lippa (music, book) and Tom Greenwald (lyrics, book) is an emotionally riveting portrait of American family life during a time of wrenching change.

Katie Zaffrann plays Jen, while Chris Crawford plays two characters named John: Jen's brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. Though both of these excellent actors are equally engaged in the story, Zaffrann's Jen is more completely developed. She goes from self-possessed big sister to '60s flower child to single mother in her 40s, while Crawford's two Johns remain forever young.

During childhood, Jen tries to protect John from their abusive father, but when she goes away to college, her kid brother feels abandoned. To please his father, he eventually enlists in the Navy and is killed in Vietnam.

The first part of the musical has some peppy numbers, such as John's hilarious razzing at his sister's high school basketball game in Dear God, but the dramatic arc is inexorably downbeat. In their final scene together, when Jen announces to John (now "one of those John Wayne army men") that she is moving to Canada so her boyfriend can dodge the draft, the bitterness between them is devastating. "You're not my family anymore," John sings in Run and Hide.

Zaffrann gives a rich, multifaceted performance, ranging from cowbell-clanging baseball mom cheering for her embarrassed son at a Little League game to sad-eyed sister on a visit to her brother's grave and marking in Just Like You the passage of time: "You're completely in the shade now. It's amazing the way this tree grew."

Crawford's portrayal of brother and son is exuberantly physical (Bye Room on going off to camp is a hoot), laced with boyish resentment and dependence on his big sister, then his mother.

Eric Davis directed (he was also responsible for costume design) with a sure hand for the actors, drawing superb work from them, and impeccable taste in his staging, which is done runway style, with the long, relatively narrow performance space flanked by banks of seats facing each other. At both ends are stacks of TV screens on which relevant images play, such as family snapshots, footage from the Vietnam War and photos from the Summer of Love.

The scenic design (by Jerid Fox) and props (Allison Davis and Chloe Davis) are smartly detailed — including John's Louisville Slugger, period newspaper front pages embedded into the stage floor and a Star Wars pillow case — to create a sense of full immersion in the family's experience. Music director Chris Brent Davis leads an offstage band of piano, cello and percussion in the inventive orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown.

It goes without saying that John & Jen speaks to sisters and brothers, mothers and sons. For baby boomers it will hit close to home, and for anyone who loves musical theater somewhat off the beaten track, it is a journey well worth taking.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Comments
Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

TAMPA — The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed Giselle, its signature ballet, on Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fifty-four dancers charmed a packed house, culminating in about two hours an effort that took more tha...
Published: 05/24/18
Well, it’s different: Porn stars are doing stand up comedy this weekend in St. Pete

Well, it’s different: Porn stars are doing stand up comedy this weekend in St. Pete

IF YOU SAY SO: PORN STARS ARE COMEDIANSWell, it’s different. Porn Stars Are Comedians extends the concept of the podcast Porn Stars Are People ("the only podcast with porn stars where we don’t discuss porn or the business of porn"), hosted by Dan Fri...
Published: 05/23/18
Waiting for ‘Godot’ to end: Half-okay performances mar an already irritating classic at Hat Trick

Waiting for ‘Godot’ to end: Half-okay performances mar an already irritating classic at Hat Trick

CLEARWATER — Hat Trick Theatre, the resident company of Ruth Eckerd Hall, closes out its season with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I must say it’s a stark choice, mainly because I can’t get two sentences into this without using the word "stark....
Published: 05/23/18
Despite hurdles, Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to Tampa after 15 years

Despite hurdles, Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to Tampa after 15 years

For decades, the reputation of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba has never dropped below excellent. In a country that prides itself on art, the company represents the best of the best, with a colorful style all its own, a blend of Russian precision and an ...
Published: 05/23/18

Local production of "Ain’t Retirement Grand!" promises lots of laughs

HUDSON — What to do in the golden years? Early bird specials, doctor’s appointments, figuring out who to leave what in your will? Or maybe just take some time out for a few laughs about the situation.A local production of Ain’t Retirement Grand! migh...
Published: 05/22/18
Florida Orchestra closes 50th masterworks season with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Florida Orchestra closes 50th masterworks season with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra wraps up its final masterworks concert of the season with a masterfully complex Johannes Brahms piano concerto and Ludwig van Beethoven’s warmly accessible Symphony No. 6, commonly known as the "Pastoral."Friday’s sold-o...
Published: 05/19/18
Florida Orchestra to offer violin lessons for at-risk Tampa youth

Florida Orchestra to offer violin lessons for at-risk Tampa youth

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra will begin tutoring at-risk children free of charge, thanks to a Hillsborough County grant.The $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. pays for six weeks of violin instruction at select recreatio...
Published: 05/16/18
Updated: 05/17/18
Orchestra performs last masterworks of the season, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6

Orchestra performs last masterworks of the season, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6

GRAND MASTERS: BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMSIt’s last call for the Florida Orchestra’s masterworks season. And why not close out the 50th season with two passionate cannon blasts, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, better known as th...
Published: 05/16/18
Review: ‘Addams Family’ cast, choreography, costumes worth seeing at Richey Suncoast

Review: ‘Addams Family’ cast, choreography, costumes worth seeing at Richey Suncoast

NEW PORT RICHEY — DO. NOT. MISS. THIS. SHOW.I’m talking about The Addams Family, the musical comedy based on the Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, several television series and two feature films, but with updated cultural references for current au...
Published: 05/14/18
Updated: 05/15/18

Review: ‘Calendar Girls’ stage show needs a touch-up

Oh, how I wish this could be a glowing review of the dramedy Calendar Girls, playing weekends through May 20 at Stage West Community Playhouse.The show about longtime friends semi-baring their bosoms to make a calendar to raise money to buy a sofa fo...
Published: 05/11/18
Updated: 05/14/18