Nestled somewhere in a rabid musical-theatre fan’s coveted cast-album collection amongst The Last Five Years and bare, you’re more than likely going to also find John & Jen. Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1995 curio musical–now being revived in a smile-inducing production by Keen Company in NYC–is and has always been a modest, white chocolate-sweet effort, a chamber piece that could be performed in an elevator as easily as a proscenium. And as Keen Company’s newest staging proves, all you need is the right people and you’ve got all you need.
Big Fish star Kate Baldwin–charmingly–plays Jen, the protective, politically-minded older sister of John (Conor Ryan), a wide-eyed baseball enthusiast. Beginning in 1952, with the duo as children, we see the titular pair grow up, navigating the rough terrain of adolescence, an abusive father, dating, and eventually the Vietnam War, which divides the thick-as-thieves siblings. The musical’s second act flashes forward to Jen as an ‘80s single mom, raising a son, also named John (and also played by Ryan), and Jen’s suddenly overprotective nature is called into question. Is she literally trying to craft her son into a redux of her beloved younger brother?
Jonathan Silverstein’s production could be sharper on period detail (sometimes we’re not quite sure when events are taking place until the narrative literally tells us), and newcomer Ryan is more convincing in his youth roles than the grown-up versions (he’s delightful in “Bye Room”, an ode to saying sayonara to bedroom contents). But the warmth of John & Jen wraps around you like a blanket, and there’s enough of a satisfying undercurrent of melancholy to stir the nostalgia pot here without it boiling over. Plus, any production that allows you to bask in Baldwin’s velvety soprano for a few hours is a plenty worthy one. B+