Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Jay Manley
Featuring: William Giammona and Alicia Teeter
When: March 15 through April 7, 2013
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets: $23-38 (discounts available for students 17 and younger with current student I.D.). Call 650-349-6411 or visit hillbarntheatre.org.
Read John Orr's interview of director Jay Manley.
in these endless times of war
sung-through musical 'john & jen'
Got to hand it to Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City for brave programming.
In September, Hillbarn staged the sing-through musical "Ragtime," with a cast of 53 and a 14-piece orchestra. In a theater that only seats 182 in the audience.
At the moment, Hillbarn is staging another sing-through musical, "john & jen," with a cast of two and a three-piece band.
Talk about a swinging pendulum.
And, ironically enough, Hillbarn executive producing director Lee Foster hired Jay Manley, known for his casts of forty or more at Foothill Music Theatre, to direct. It's a good show, although not without some problems, as a play, and in this production.
Despite the title, it is really the story of Jen, the big sister who promises to protect her little brother John, but fails to do so. She goes off to college and becomes a hippie during the Vietnam War, leaving John at home to listen to their abusive father, who talks him into joining the military.
When John is killed in the war, Jen becomes overly protective of her son, whom she names John. Her learning curve includes having to accept pushing her son out of the nest.
As both Johns, William Giammona is wonderful to watch. He's a fine actor and a good singer, and manages the lightning-quick age and emotion changes of the script brilliantly. He goes from broken-hearted little abused boy at Christmas to a middle-schooler terrified that his sister is leaving to a right-wing hawk going off to war in a thrice. He gets to be a baby twice -- once as little brother John, and once as son John.
As Jen, Alicia Teeter is too perfect as a singer, and that gets in the way of her acting. I'm willing to bet that if you put a tuning meter on her voice, the notes she sings would be exactly what they are in the notation. If a C note is required for two full measures, she delivers a C note for two full measures.
She seems to have good acting chops in everything but her singing. And since this is a sung-through play, that's a problem. It's just note after perfect note, with no inflection, no emotion.
Giammona manages to put his acting in his singing. Teeter does not.
The play itself is almost too much like poetry. Its subjects of familial love, responsibility, hurt and forgiveness are there, clearly, but much of it is delivered via imagery and inference. It wants thinking and meditation. And when the climactic point is reached, when Jen finally gets to forgive herself for letting her brother die, and learns to trust her son in the big world, it's almost too little. We want a bigger chunk of understanding.
For those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War, this will all be familiar. Sons whose fathers fought in World War II going off to Vietnam because John F. Kennedy thought, at first, it was the right thing to do. All those 60,000 families who had to deal with the loss and very often the guilt of allowing their children to go off and be killed.
The score for Andrew Lippa's first musical is truly impressive, and fascinating to listen to throughout, although it doesn't put songs to whistle on audience lips. It's scored for just keyboards, percussion and cello -- three pieces -- but it is amazing and beautiful throughout. Music director Graham Sobelman is there every night on keys; the cello players are either Sug Magrini or Janey Witharm, and the percussionists are either Poh Soon Ten or Doug Chen. I don't know who was there on Saturday, but wow, I was impressed.
The show blazes along at a rapid clip, with mostly onstage costume changes, songs continuing while Jen goes from being a middle schooler to being a hippy, and John the son going from middle schooler to high school graduate.
The set by Robert Broadfoot is simple but effective, with a box serving a baby's crib and later as that same baby's coffin. Lighting is mostly effective, although the projections on the background house wall were all too often muddled and confusing.