In theater as in life, there are good problems and there are bad problems. Right now, Out of the Box Theater Company director Samantha Eve and Emily Jewell, her leading lady in the upcoming John and Jen, are facing nothing but the best when it comes to challenges. For Eve, the dilemma involves deciding how to follow Spring Awakening, the hit rock musical she directed last April, which won multiple Indy Awards and wowed the younger set with its intense storyline and impressive performances. For Jewell, the actress and singer who served as musical advisor to Spring Awakening, the question is perhaps more acute as she’s following not only her work on that show but also a stellar performance as Kate Monster in this summer’s SBCC Theatre Group production of Avenue Q. Fortunately for them both, and for theatergoers in Santa Barbara, the answer is near at hand in the form of John and Jen, a two-person musical directed by Eve and starring Jewell and Tad Murroughs. Eve explains her choice of this show as something that attracted her “because of the wonderful music, but also because of its unique way of telling a story. Although it’s not as well-known as Spring Awakening was, I still think people are going to respond really positively to it for those reasons.”
Jewell agreed with this assessment of the show and expressed her gratitude for the chance to sing “music that’s really good and difficult,” adding that she finds “the arc of Jen’s storyline very satisfying.” In the first act, Jen and John are a young brother and sister, and in the second, the same actor plays Jen’s son, who is also named John, in a sequence designed to describe how the now middle-aged Jen has chosen to cope with the loss of her beloved sibling.
Composer Andrew Lippa and lyricist Tom Greenwald wrote the show together back in 1994, and it was first performed off Broadway at The Lamb’s Theatre in 1995. Since then, Lippa has gone on to fame and fortune as the man behind such hits as The Wild Party and The Addams Family. In this show, he was working on his skills as a songwriter of sophistication and dramatic flair. As Eve put it, “Every single change in these songs happens for a dramatic reason — they match the shifting intentions of the characters perfectly.” What’s more, the 19 songs in John and Jen take up approximately 80 percent of its running time, making for an extraordinarily high ratio of music to spoken dialogue. To play Jen, who experiences the bittersweet effects of becoming a flower child in the 1960s, an actress must be prepared to age from 6 to over 40 during the course of just two acts, while the man playing John must create not one but two distinct versions of a young boy. Both Jewell and Eve praise young Murroughs highly for his work in the dual roles.
“Tad has been so much fun to work with,” says Jewell, “because he really has the bratty younger brother thing down. He’s so childlike that he just goes for it.” Likewise, Eve stresses the way that Murroughs connects not only to childhood but to his own childhood training in theater, which took place here in Santa Barbara. “Tad was in Showstoppers, he came up through the theater training system here in town, and I love him for that,” she explained. So, if you are intrigued by the prospect of seeing and hearing what these talented young people have decided to do next, don’t miss John and Jen.
John and Jen opens at Center Stage Theater on Thursday, October 4 and plays through Sunday, October 14. Call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info.