Review: ‘John & Jen’ at The Eagle Theatre

Welcome to the world
It’s such a funny place
The people who you love the most
Are also the ones
Who make you cry
I’m not sure why

A girl sings these lines to her newborn brother in the opening moments of John & Jen, a musical that celebrates family bonds while showing how difficult maintaining them can be.

Kimberly Suskind and Adam Hoyak. Photo by Chris Miller.
Kimberly Suskind and Adam Hoyak. Photo by Chris Miller.

It’s a two-actor show that doesn’t require big production values; the Off-Broadway production I saw a few years ago told the story using a tiny stage and a small series of ramps. But at The Eagle Theatre, director Ted Wioncek III has staged the show using sets, costumes and props that flesh out the story without distracting from its emotional core.

John & Jen opens in the 1950s as big sister Jen (Kimberly Suskind) guides little brother John (Adam Hoyak) through the ways of life. But she also must guide him through the turbulent minefield of their parents’ fighting. By the time the late sixties roll around, political and social differences – chiefly disagreements over the Vietnam War – drive the two siblings apart. In Act Two, we follow Jen through the seventies, eighties and nineties; now she’s a single mom dealing with a son named John (also played by Hoyak). Jen is determined not to make the same mistakes with her son that she made with her brother, but as she smothers her son with affection, this relationship becomes strained too. In each act, the two characters depend on each other yet are aggravated by each other.

There’s a sadness that pervades John & Jen (starting with those lyrics above), but there’s an underlying tenderness too. Tom Greenwald’s lyrics show sensitivity to the nuances of the characters. Andrew Lippa provides soaring melodies filled with dramatic flourishes, with rumbling basslines that create a sense of movement. If the songs aren’t always catchy (aside from the wonderfully bouncy “Trouble With Men”), they all suit the situations well and give the lyrics a rock-solid base. Greenwald and Lippa also wrote the book, which contains brief bridging material between the songs.

John & Jen works best when it focuses on the characters on an intimate level; when it strays from that focus, things get tricky. The weakest number is “Talk Show,” which imagines Jen and her son acting out their arguments on a series of combative, Jerry Springer-like TV shows; it takes its central metaphor and runs it into the ground. But the show redeems itself with poignant songs such as “Hold Down the Fort,” which finds Jen leaving for college and giving her brother affectionate words of encouragement – words he’s not willing to accept, since he can’t forgive her for leaving home.

Adam Hoyak and Kimberly Suskind. Photo by Chris Miller.
Adam Hoyak and Kimberly Suskind. Photo by Chris Miller.

This is tricky acting material, with the relationships between the characters shifting frequently. Suskind is protective and maternal even in the earliest scenes, and she shows off a strong comic flair as well. Hoyak is required to be more frequently sullen and childlike, but he also rises to the challenge of the dramatic confrontations at the end of Act One. And both show off robust singing voices, with Suskind’s soprano especially impressive.

And Wioncek’s staging is impressive, too. The set design (by Wioncek and Chris Miller) places the show in an inviting attic, with wooden beams and walls lined with insulation. We see Jen remove drop cloths covering items throughout the attic – a trunk, a crib, a scrapbook – and use them as props throughout the show. Video projection (by Miller, with projection design by Brian Morris) enhances the story without overwhelming it, and Miller’s lighting is discreet and tasteful. Ashleigh Poteat’s costumes indulge in period garb (hippie gear for the sixties sequences) without getting ridiculous. Jason Neri leads the three-piece offstage band, which overwhelmed the singers early on but later showed more restraint; David Pierron did the sound design.

John & Jen is filled with good songs, good performances, and good insights into family relationships. It’s a modest show that works well on a grander scale, and it’s one worth discovering.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including an intermission.

John & Jen plays through April 9, 2017, at The Eagle Theatre – 208 Vine Street, in Hammonton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 704-5012, or purchase them online.