Review: JOHN AND JEN at the Eagle Theatre

The truth and conviction of the human spirit makes this John & Jen a gorgeous triumph.

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.

Interview: “Catch a Rising Star” Kimberly Suskind from “JOHN AND JEN”

Hammonton, NJ‘s Eagle Theatre brings in one of their favorite talents to star in Off Broadway’s “John and Jen”, a musical journey about a family’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes, failures and redemption.

Playing John is another Eagle favorite Adam Hoyak and Jen is played by Kimberly Suskind. We are spotlighting Kimberly who is no stranger to the Eagle Theatre having been part of 7 Eagle productions including Godspell, Heathers! The Musical, Beehive: The Musical and The Civil War.

Kimberly is far from a novice to the stage with a long resume of singing, acting and dancing in local and regional productions include Young Frankenstein (Elizabeth Benning), Burt and Me (Lacey) at the Delaware Theater Company and one of four productions at the Theater Barn in New York.

I caught up with Kimberly after the Eagle opening of John & Jen; the 1995 Off Broadway musical written by Broadway’s Andrew Lippa.

Pati Buehler: Kimberly, please shed some light on this emotional story and how did you prepare for the role?

Kimberly Suskind: This role is so incredibly special to me! I fell in love with John & Jen in college and could never get through the cast recording without tearing up. It’s such a beautiful story that everyone can relate to in some way. The relationships between two family members, whether it be brother and sister, mother and son, or any other combination, is often full of tension, affection, and most importantly, unconditional love. As far as preparing for the role, other than learning the extensive music and dialogue, I was fascinated by documentaries on the two sides of the Vietnam War and researching the 1960s counter culture. I love an opportunity to research and becoming more familiar with different time periods!

Kimberly’s bio reveals that she was singing at 18 months old and dancing by 3. Seems like she never stopped! Please tell where you call home and what was your family life all about?

KS: It’s true! Once I started, I was hooked forever. I’m very lucky to say, both of my parents were incredibly supportive of my career choice and helped me achieve everything I set out to do. My mother took me to infinite auditions, dance classes and rehearsals. I’m grateful every day that she believed in me and was will to give so much of her own time. My 14 year old little sister, Kayci, has the theatre bug too! My two brothers, Kayci’s twin, Tyler, and my older brother, Matt, have their own interests and specials skills. I actually spent my childhood moving about every two years, a corporate brat, some might say. I’ve lived in 9 states, all over the country, and went to eleven schools. I usually say I’m from Seattle, as that’s where I attended high school. My family now resides in beautiful southern Florida.

Kimberly earned her BFA in Musical Theater at the Boston Conservatory where she was awarded the Sue Ronson Levy Tap Scholarship. In addition to rigorous training in acting and dancing, her special skills include dialects in British, Cockney, Irish, New York, Southern and Jewish Grandmother! Having seen this delightful always smiling young actress in several productions I’d love to see you cast in a show requiring a Jewish Grandmother! Have you had the opportunity to use any of these ‘special talents’?

KS: I’m laughing out loud about that one! My lovely grandma, Sheila Cohen, is the inspiration as my quintessential Jewish grandmother and I have spent my lifetime trying to emulate her fabulous Brooklyn-born accent! She loves to have me “Do my voice!” in front of her friends. Why not throw in something to add a little humor to a resume? That being said, unfortunately, I’m never asked to portray a role that requires it. I’m still holding out hope! I have been able to use some other dialects, mostly southern and British.

PB: What do you hope the audience of John and Jen take away from this show?

KS: I hope the audience will leave the theatre thinking, “Wow, I need to call my family.” Our director, Ted Wioncek III, has found every touching and heartfelt moment the script has to offer. It’s so rewarding to work with someone who can read between the lines and lyrics to extract beautiful hidden meaning. I hope the production will warm the hearts of our audiences and encourage them to experience rarely produced musicals and plays! There are some hidden gems out there, and this is one of them!

Kimberly and Adam will appear in JOHN and JEN 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 For more information about Kimberly Suskind visit www.kimberlysuskind.com

Photo # 1 Kim in Eagle’s Beehive: The Musical-Photo credit: Chris Miller

Photo # 2 Adam Hoyak (John) and Kimberly Suskind (Jen) in “John and Jen”- Photo credit: Chris Miller

Photo # 3 Kim ( Elizabeth Benning) “Young Frankenstein, Barn Theater – Photo credit: A. Phelps