Walk into the Chapel Off Chapel theatre for John & Jen and the first thing that hits you is how truly intimate the space is. The very first row of seats isn’t separated from the stage in any way – there’s no elevation to the stage, so the audience is right there, able to discern every expression and every visual cue. The sparsity of the set also helps – soft curtains partially shield the musicians, and the most ostentatious part of the set is the blanket fort held up by a tumble of wooden beams. Most of the props are hidden away in two large, wheely boxes that double as seats and beds.
A fairly new musical, John & Jen explores the relationships between brothers and sisters, and parents and children. Set in a small American town but gradually expanding in scope, it focuses on brother and sister John (Brenton Cosier) and Jen (Jaclyn De Vincentis). The musical numbers function as vignettes of moments in time – a Christmas here, a basketball game there – and the first act flies through over a decade, showing a progression in the siblings’ relationship, for good and for bad.
I adore a sung-through musical, but found that the emphasis on these vignettes meant we were jumping from one moment in time to another a little too quickly. That’s more an issue for writers Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald though. Director Mark Taylor and musical director Tyson Legg do an admirable job with the material, ensuring that it all flows beautifully. In fact, it’s possible it flows a little too well – while all the music was excellent, there’s no iconic song, no ‘Defying Gravity’ or ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in there; time will tell whether the songs have real staying power.
Stars Cosier and De Vincentis are powerhouses – the musical just wouldn’t work with less talented, less convincing actors. Sure, it does take some mental gymnastics to think of the lanky, tall Cosier as a five-year-old boy, or the curvy De Vincentis as a ten-year-old, but they sell it (helped by the clear, unambiguous costuming). De Vincentis in particular has some show-stopping solos that bring the audience to tears. The complexities of life, especially against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, are dealt with beautifully by both stars – John & Jen is definitely an all-American type of musical, touching on matters of war, punishment, suburbia, college and of course, Canada.
Pursued By Bear are still yet to bet on or produce a bad musical – I’m excited to see what they’ve got on the cards next. Amongst the clutter of shows at Melbourne Fringe Festival, John & Jen is worth taking a break for – just prepare some tissues and bring your imagination.
John & Jen is playing at Chapel off Chapel until Sunday 27 September. For more information and to book,