John & Jen, a story that spans over 50 years, is an intimate tale about connections, commitments and the healing of the human heart.
We meet Jen as a 6 year old singing “Welcome to the World” to her baby brother John promising to make sure he’s happy and as safe as he can be; promises that are easily made yet in time take on a darker new meaning. Every family has its unique problems and situations. Turns out father has a temper that occasionally turns violent and Jen soon sees that John in sometimes the target of his rage. The two vow to work it out together in a cozy attic which becomes their safe place and later becomes a testing ground for the growing siblings over the years.
There is much to get involved with about this story; an emotional score by Broadway’s Andrew Lippa featuring some of his finest work paired with lyrics by Tom Greenwald and a book by both. Then there’s the incredible acting and vocals by Adam Hoyak (John) and Kimberly Suskind (Jen) and the effective direction of Ted Wioncek III. Wioncek takes a piece that was basically staged in a ‘black box’ setting and enhances the production by inviting the audience into the cozy attic filled with family treasures, memorabilia and stored pieces from their lives. It’s in this setting that Hoyak and Suskind live out their hopes, dreams, and frustrations as they bond together during their childhood and sing their hearts out! The two brilliantly and believably become excitable little children who grow together and inevitably apart from one another as their evolving feelings and independence present challenges into young adulthood. Again Lippa’s score propels the emotions which always seem to be the focal point of the story with numbers such as the playful ‘Think Big”, “Trouble With Men”, (showing how Jen’s troubles with Dad affected her), “Hold Down the Fort”, (as the two march into young adulthood) “It Took Me While” and “Run and Hide”, as the two part bitterly ending Act One.
John and Jen could have ended gloriously after Act One, which I understand was the original idea during the reading stages of this Off- Broadway show that opened in 1995. However the creators decided to add a second act as Jen’s story takes on a new life after the death of her brother. As Jen struggles with layers of sadness, guilt and regret while raising a young son, also named John, also played by Hoyak after her brother, the plot takes on a whole new set of problems arising with Jen’s inability to let her son grow on his own fearing she would lose him as well. It was Act Two that I became aware of the similarities of this piece with Brian Yorkey, Tom Kit’s Broadway hit show “Next To Normal” who’s story-line revolves around the loss of a family member and repercussions that affect a family when a mother mourns and suffers through the loss alongside her family.
Jen relives her memories of her brother with and through her son in songs “Old Clothes” and “Just Like You” as her son struggles to become his own person apart from his uncle’s memory and Jen struggles to find a way to deal with letting go. Powerful songs such as “The Road Ends Here” (Jen’s recognition to let go and move on) and the ending song “Every Goodbye is Hello” bring the show to full circle leaving a totally immersed audience perhaps thinking about friends and family members facing the reality we call… life.
JOHN and JEN plays at The Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St. Hammonton, NJ on selected dates through April 9. For tickets and information: visit www.eagletheatre.org or call 609.704.5012
Production Photos: Chris Miller
photo: Adam Hoyak (John), Kimberly Suskind (Jen), Artistic Director Ted Wioncek III, Pati Buehler ( PBENT.com/BWW.com) standing.