Hello? Yes, Kansas City? Go see more theatre.
John and Jen
This past weekend john and jen, a musical written by a young Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, closed at the Fishtank performance space at 17th and Wyandotte. It's a damn shame that more Kansas City theatre goers didn't see this production.
Director Nathan Norcross constructs a poignant evening of theatre that demands reflection on life, loss and change. The show begins with a wonderful opening image: Jen, played by Molly Denninghoff, sleeps on the floor, clinging to long-dead memories.
Norcross sets the stage with literal and metaphorical symbols of life stages: piles of suitcases, a crib, a Christmas tree and several boxes. The symbolism is both obvious and not-so-obvious. How often do we forget that change is constant?
The strength of this production rests on Norcross' deliberate yet artistic touch. He doesn't hammer the audience with theme, but instead suggests, leaves subtle cues and clues for the audience to follow. For example, the crib rocks throughout the production at a few chosen moments, reminding us that infancy, like every other period in life, "rocks" on. Nothing lasts forever.
The script demands much and Norcross accommodates seemingly easily. He weaves together different times, places and ages of characters in literally a closet of a theatre. The set remains exactly the same throughout, but we travel with the characters to a graveyard, a basketball game, a talk show, a secret hideout, a living room, all with directed movement and artistic styling.
The musical often calls for dual time and place, different characters, mystical encounters with the dead, etc. and Norcross adapts beautifully. He helps his audience forget they're sitting in a closet and magically creates space (I'm still not sure how this happened). In particular, he excels in Act One's basketball scene and Act Two's talk show scene.
I would argue, however, that writers Lippa and Greenwald are often clumsy when choosing essential material and scenes. Though many I talked with disagreed with me, the talk show scene seems incredibly misplaced within the entire production. We never meet characters other than John (brother and son) and Jen. Why introduce talk show hosts? It's odd.
But writing qualms aside, this was a well-directed, acted, lighted, and managed show. In particular worth mentioning is young Musical Director Baker Purdon. Purdon skillfully plays a difficult score with ease. And as always, a clean show's credit should always go to its director, but also its stage manager: Elizabeth Goetzman.
The lighting design by Sean Glass provided clear transition and assisted in establishing time, place and focus. In particular, I loved the moment in Act One where John, played by Price Messick, begins to pray to God and a green light washes over him. I also loved the lighting in the graveyard scenes.
Both actors' performances are worth mentioning. Denninghoff and Messick are both popular faces in Kansas City theatre and for good reason. Both have great presence and lovely voices. Their strength as singers helps the production off its feet.
Denninghoff's younger portrayal of Jen was slightly less believable than her adult Jen, but altogether I found her to be charming. She captures 'over-bearing mother' quite well.
Messick plays a child with ease and creates an incredibly likeable and loveable John both in Act One and Act Two. Worth mentioning is Act Two when Messick's character packs to go to camp. It's one of the best moments of the show.
john and jen can speak to everyone. Loss and change seem to be the only constant in life. Learning to let go becomes more difficult with each goodbye, but john and jen reminds us that saying goodbye means saying hello to something new.
Beyond thematic connections, Kansas City needs more diverse theatre options. We have room for more production companies and directors. Why aren't Kansas City folks showing up to support that? Something to think about…
Again: it's simply criminal if you missed john and jen.
read the review at KC Stage