As a theatrical form, the musical typically follows fairly rigid conventions. Ever since Oklahoma!, or so the received wisdom goes, the “book musical” has aimed to integrate plot, dance, music, and lyrics into a single image that carries the story forward. Doing this consistently has given rise to certain standard elements, such as the first act finale — a song that delivers the message that the characters, while aware of the challenges they face, will continue to persevere and eventually win the day. Such a number sends a not-so-subtle message to the audience that whatever has happened so far, everything will be made better in the second act. In John and Jen, the fascinating and tuneful two-person show now playing at Center Stage Theater, these conventions are at once upheld and upended, as two actors play three characters, and the first act ends with the loss of one figure, who is replaced by another but played by the same actor in the second half of the show.
It’s a daring departure, and one which John and Jen for the most part carries off very well. The first thing this production has going for it is a terrific cast. Emily Jewell is outstanding as Jen, singing confidently and acting effectively even as she traverses the several decades that pass for her character in the course of the action. As John (Act 1) and John (Act 2), Tad Murroughs is also terrific, singing, acting, and dancing with just the right mixture of intensity and spontaneity. Director Samantha Eve connects with writer Andrew Lippa’s vision effectively, and her staging fills Center Stage’s black box space with interesting movement and powerful parallels. The twin scenes involving sporting events are particularly good, as are the heartbreaking moments of domestic distress. While there are times, as in Act 2 during the “Talk Show” sequence, when the exaggerated tone threatens to derail what has come before, the eventual finale is strong and clear enough to pull all the disparate threads of the story together. Those with an interest in musical theater as an art form would do well to catch this little gem.