John & Jen

Penfold Theatre once again mounts a chamber musical that's heartfelt and true

John & Jen

The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress,

Through Feb. 21

Running time: 2 hr

Arts Review

One of my only fears in life is to end up like my parents. I scour my own personality for the fault lines of their lives, I break down how my girlfriend can never be like my mother, I break away from any comfort if it seems that it might lead me down their trail. And yet, deep down, I know I'll never escape the family and childhood I had. They are imprinted on my identity more indelibly than prints are on my thumbs. Like Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" says: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do."

The child is father of the man, so the saying goes, and this wrestling of family, generations, and identities is at the heart of Penfold Theatre Company's John & Jen, as bittersweet a musical as you're likely to see. From the last days of the grin-and-bear-it Fifties to the early days of the New World Nineties, John & Jen sweeps through a panorama of the changes to our fair nation and our fair culture and what they've done to our fair people. While a show trying to take hits from such a smorgasbord of cultural flash points might be expected to dip into the maudlin, John & Jen gets past this through its focus on relationships and its music (and through Penfold's excellent production).

John & Jen is really a story of two Johns and one Jen. Jen starts as the first John's protective older sister, but after she is exposed to radical elements while attending college in New York, her opposition to the Vietnam War causes an irreparable rift between her and her brother, who wishes to follow in their abusive father's footsteps. As time progresses and Jen becomes a single mom, her lifestyle and relationship with her son, also named John, are drowned in a yearning for her brother. Her son doesn't want to be kept down, and she can't bear to let him go.

Family can turn the screw worse than anyone else, and I admired the script by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald for pushing into tougher themes and not letting resolution come easily. This theme also plays into the music, which is full of discordant melodies. Director Michael McKelvey has overseen a wonderful production of this chamber musical and gotten strong performances from his actors.

With a two-person cast, both actors need to be not only likable but likable together – a task especially difficult for the two in John & Jen because there is no romantic dynamic onstage. But Sarah Gay and Andrew Cannata are quite engaging and entertaining together. Gay is sweet and always comfortable, and she does a very good job of portraying a character who must span 30 years in age. Cannata has a powerhouse voice and a charisma that seems untaught.

At times sweet, at times somber, John & Jen puts a lot into its musical, and Penfold's production brings it all to the stage in a very crisp, true production. At the end of the show, I wanted to call my mother and tell her I love her (honestly). We may never be able to escape our parents' personalities or our own, the things that trip us up, but we can search for the love that lights the way out. John & Jen shows us the light and the dark in this engaging production.

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john and jen, Penfold Theatre Company, Michael McKelvey, Sarah Gay, Andrew Cannata

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