Columbia’s Red Branch Theatre Company is out to test just how spare and lean a musical can get and still hold an audience in a magical spell. The company’s new staging of the off-Broadway 1995 show john & jen has just two cast members and a bare minimum of props, yet it is anything but challenged in the power of music, the beauty of voice, and its wealth of human emotion.
Being presented at Red Branch in rotating repertoire with Jason Robert Brown’s two-person The Last Five Years, the pairing amounts to a full salvo on the bloated excess of Broadway imports and Las Vegas-style spectacles.
Created by the team of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, the book of john & jen seeks common emotional ground with the viewer rather than bowing to conventional notions of “what’s going to happen next?”
We meet Jen (Danielle Sherry) as a supposed 6-year-old at the crib of her newborn brother, John (Patrick J. Prebula), offering him both a “Welcome to the World” and a promise of her protection. What she fears, it turns out, is their tyrannical and abusive father, whose physical fights with their mother are witnessed by the two siblings one not-so-silent Christmas Eve.
The whole suburban childhood crazyquilt of secret playhouses, shared games and sports fervor flash by in a series of Sondheim-esque songs that on first hearing seem long on craft and short on melody.
Eventually, Jen flees home for further education in New York, and is forever haunted by the thought that she abandoned her little brother to the brutal influence of their dad.
The Beatles invasion, the Vietnam War, and the rise of the drug culture are all given a summary once-over as Jen becomes a hippie and a dropout, and is even more estranged from John, who has secretly enlisted in the Navy.
Not to spoil the emotional punch of the first act, the second act introduces a third character, also played by Patrick Prebula. This time he is Jen’s own young son, whom she has named John, and there are strong echoes of what we saw in Act I as she vows to protect this new John from a world of violence. She cannot rewrite the past, of course, and the challenges posed by her failed marriage and her bouts of guilt more and more result in a troubled relationship.
All of this makes for rich universal material that is only occasionally reduced to Hallmark card-type sentiments.
One can never fault the two performers, however. Both Sherry and Prebula do an outstanding job in inhabiting roles that range from innocence to rage.
Danielle Sherry is the image of big-sisterly devotion, especially in moving solos like “Old Clothes” and “Smile of Your Dreams.” She also handles the edgier rebellion numbers like “Hold Down the Fort” with convincing determination. Her weepy soul-baring “The Road Ends Here” moved many in the audience to tears.
Patrick Prebula proved his command of the stage in Red Branch’s Tick … Tick … BOOM! last season. Here he gets to express a more vulnerable side, as well as a more volatilely emotional dimension. He is nothing less than winning, though, when tearing into a boyishly infectious fantasy like “Bye Room.”
Both performers make the most of a back-and-forth montage of 1980’s TV issues called “Talk Show,” handing off the mike like a baton to race around the theater space like junior Phil Donohues.
john & jen could use more light-hearted, condensed episodes like that. Today’s audiences are often far ahead of what they are told. The work is also limited by its baby-boomer biases. It takes a far more forgiving stance on Jen’s retreat into a 1960’s drug culture, for instance, than of John’s decision to serve his country, which is painted as a tragic extrapolation of his father’s loutishness.
Once again, Stephanie Lynn Williams proves a more-than-able director at Red Branch, keeping the staging active and revealing. The live musical accompaniment by the expert Tiffany Underwood Holmes and a three-piece ensemble is another dependable asset to the show.
Served together, john & jen and The Last Five Years are dynamite showcases for the crew and for their four rising young stage performers. The two plays may have been billed as “The Love/Loss Cycle,” but theater-goers here have nothing to lose and a world of entertainment to enjoy.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.
John & Jen plays in repertory with The Last Five Years, Fridays through Sundays through May 3, 2014 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at The Drama Learning Center-9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9392, or purchase them online. Tickets are $18-20 ($22 at the door), or $36 for the two-play series.