Theatre Mirror Reviews - "John & Jen"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"JOHN & JEN"

music by Andrew Lippa; book by Tom Greenwald
lyrics by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa
directed by Scott Edmiston
musical direction by Timothy Evans

Jen … Leigh Barrett
John … Eric Rubbe

Piano … Timothy Evans
John Burnstead
Percussion … Mick Lewander

I cannot walk out of today’s musicals humming any of their tunes simply because there aren’t any. After “Memory” from CATS, over twenty years ago, what stage songs have become pop, lounge and jazz standards, giving, in turn, continued life to their sources? I exclude the cabaret scene where singers/songwriters go to hear other singers/songwriters --- I’m talking about standards for a square like me who can’t play an instrument or read a note of music but who knows a good tune when he hears one. This is a serious question and I welcome your serious answers.

As I scribbled some time ago, melody and lyrics must go hand in hand: the lyrics determine the melody’s sound, rhythm and emotion while the melody in turn allows you to remember the lyrics. Chances are I could hum a tune from the Golden Age of Musicals and you could guess what it is or at least have heard it, before; perhaps you could even recite or sing the words back to me, as well. I can’t do such give-and-take with the New Musicals of today for everything they offer sounds alike to me and I am half-convinced they are all created by a frustrated poet with a limited musical vocabulary, turning out show after show with Orwellian predictability (in Mr. Orwell’s prophetic novel the future’s songs are created by recycling the same sounds for the cowed masses).

When the American Musical came into its own it was very much an extroverted art form with its energy, its choruses, its dances all contributing to a sense of community; the New Musical is introverted --- the libretto-less evening becomes a concert or a lieder recital; the cast is minimal (three, in this context, is definitely a crowd); its isolated characters, sealed off in spotlights, spend more time in reflection than in reaching out to one another while the pianist runs mini-scales by the bushel to show that, yes, something is definitely going on here…. The New Musical is for people who don’t like what musicals once were with their artifice, their sense of courtship and romance, their entertainment for entertainment’s sake --- they see the New Musical as being more Real and a more accurate mirror for today’s times. I respect their stance --- I once thought HAIR was everything that Rodgers & Hammerstein was not; that Be-In is now as dated as any Victor Herbert operetta --- but if the New Musical is today’s mirror then it is a pocket one for vanity viewing. As for it being more Real, I find the New Musical to be timid and insecure, deep down (or not so deep down), its experiences coming from rap sessions and the therapist’s couch. For all of his sentimentality, Oscar Hammerstein II could pack a wealth of emotion in just a few lines as in “Dis Flower” from CARMEN JONES, his reworking of Bizet’s opera: Joe (f/k/a Don Jose) sings to Ms. Jones: “I only saw you once / Once wouldn’ do! / I don’ know anythin’ about you. / I don’ know much about a shinin’ star. / Jus’ know de worl’ is dark widout you --- / Dat’s all I know ….” Here is a naïve man who has fallen hard for a fickle woman, on first sight; these few lines contain the seeds of his obsession that will end in her murder. Some may declare, “If you listen to the New Musical’s lyrics, they say a lot, too!” Perhaps they do, but in these shows the lyrics dominate and the music obediently trots behind, stripped of orchestration; their shows operate on middle ground, rarely soaring, and I can’t help feeling I am being lectured on rather than shown the workings of the human heart which, in turn, drives me into my own isolation.

Have you ever noticed that you don’t need to listen all of the time to the score of a Golden Age Musical? Let’s pretend you are attending, say, KISS ME, KATE, and you’ve never heard of Cole Porter; the orchestra is exceptionally loud and the Lois Lane is mush-mouthed, so all you hear is:

If a [mumble mumble] vet / Asks me out for something wet / When the [mumble mumble] pet, I cry, “Hooray!”

You may lose some of the words but the melody’s bounce and swing tells you that Lois is an upbeat girl, a flirtatious gold-digger but never a slut. If you happen to know KISS ME, KATE inside-out, you may choose not to listen to the lyrics at all but just tap away to the tune. (MENOPAUSE: THE MUSICAL, still going strong at the Charles Playhouse, lets its audience have it both ways, Pavlovian-style: (1) the audience recognizes a pop tune and is ready to listen for old times’ sake; (2) when the audience hears new lyrics instead of the original ones they listen a-new; (3) the melody makes the substituted lyrics easily digestible and the lyricist gets her message across; (4) the audience is delighted and entertained at such cleverness; (5) repeat with next song.) New Musical lyrics tend to be densely packed; should you stop listening for a second you could miss a life-changing revelation --- and the melody certainly won’t help you to catch up.

Hopefully I will have explained why today’s musicals leave me so unsatisfied. Yes, a critic should be impartial but he is also human and the New Musical fails in my book because it has yet to give me any real joy --- I scribble “yet” because, cock-eyed optimist that I am, the next one in line could be the one that clicks.

JOHN & JEN, over at the Stoneham Theatre, was not that musical. This two-hour song cycle sings a portrait of a troubled woman named Jen who hates her father and obsesses over her brother John from the day he is born; when John dies in Vietnam, Jen transfers her smothering to her son and his namesake (in two moments worthy of Hitchcock, Jen gives her son his late uncle’s bathrobe to wear and his baseball mitt). The son wants to leave the nest, which is understandable (and necessary), but comes close to returning to the womb out of guilt; after singing a near-love duet, mother and son take their first baby steps towards a mutual independence. Two performers; much sung-through analysis; no hummable tunes; a busy piano that isn’t still for a moment --- it’s all there and you are welcome to it.

I was somewhat compensated by the performances of Leigh Barrett and Eric Rubbe who, along with their director Scott Edmiston, did far lovelier things with last season’s JACQUES BREL, another song-cycle but with tunes emanating from a wise and worldly heart. Ms. Barrett continues to be a singing marvel with her ability to turn lyrics into gliding speech no matter how dark or psychological; ironically, she is far sunnier here than I’ve seen her in quite some time and her cool high spirits go a long way towards slipping Jen’s neurosis past the audience’s collective nose. Ms. Barrett is ready for Shakespeare, now, and I don’t mean WEST SIDE STORY; she would make a marvelous, amused Portia. Janie E. Howland has designed an appealing set composed of photographic blow-ups; if she also created the accompanying slide show, ditto.

Not too long ago I read that someone, somewhere, is musicalizing GREY GARDENS, the cult documentary about Edith and Edie Beale, a mother-daughter relationship played out in a decaying East Hampton mansion. I tried watching the film, once, but couldn’t get through it --- all of that cinéma vérité insanity got to me, after awhile --- but if the thought of Big Edie, her wizened body clad only in a bath towel, singing and dancing her way around piles of cat shit is your idea of a night out, then you’d best seek out this newest of New Musicals and order your tickets, now.

"John & Jen" (17 February - 6 March)
STONEHAM THEATRE
395 Main Street, STONEHAM, MA
1 (781) 279-2200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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