The ballad of a brother & sister

The Blue Canoe’s production of John & Jen relies heavily on the talent of two performers

John & Jen features only two actors: Katie Bell (left) as Jen and Edward Larocque as John.
John & Jen features only two actors: Katie Bell (left) as Jen and Edward Larocque as John.
John & Jen is sent in the 1960s and 1970s amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
John & Jen is sent in the 1960s and 1970s amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Contributor When director Megan Scarborough told me John & Jen would be showing in Theological Hall’s Studio Theatre, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. The Studio Theatre isn’t so much a theatre as it is a classroom that happens to have some overhead lights hung in it. Given the breadth of venues available on campus and in Kingston, I can only wonder why The Studio Theatre was chosen.

Despite my reservations, I came away very impressed with what I saw. John & Jen, written and arranged by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, would be a bit of an odd choice if it were anyone but Blue Canoe producing it. The student-run theatre company thrives on presenting obscure, relatively unknown plays. John & Jen is also unique because of its tiny cast—Scarborough cast only two actors.

The musical follows the story of John and his older sister Jen in the first act and later Jen’s son, also named John, in the second act. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, the backdrop of the Vietnam War serves as a source conflict between the title characters. The play is especially poignant given the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Johns are played by Edward Larocque, while Katie Bell plays the role of Jen. With such a small cast, the pressure is on both actors to perform, since any weakness is either of them is immediately evident.

Fortunately, both Larocque and Bell deliver competent performances and do an excellent job showing the trials and tribulations of the brother-sister and mother-son bond. The majority of the show is sung, allowing both actors to show off their incredible range and ability. Larocque’s vocals are especially powerful—if anything, they’re too strong, and more than once drowned out Bell’s performance. It’s not that Bell is a poor singer—she does well enough on her own—but Larocque’s vocals are so much stronger that it can distract.

Bell’s strength lies with slower, more intimate songs rather than the show-stopping numbers at which Larocque excels. The result is that John is a far more compelling character, because Larocque is such a compelling vocalist.

Scarborough chose to accompany the singers with only a piano, a smart choice given the confines and acoustics of the room. The musical traditionally includes percussion, but since the performers already found themselves competing to be heard with the piano at times, adding more instruments would only have made matters worse. The solo piano lends the show a haunting, surreal air that would be lost with a larger pit. This is especially evident in some of the more personal pieces, such as when Jen mourns for her brother near the end of Act I. However, judicious use of percussion could have added something to a few of the show’s big musical numbers.

Both actors also have ample opportunities to show they can act as well as they sing. Portraying such a wide time-span can be difficult to do on stage, but Larocque and Bell manage to make it believable. Larocque is especially strong, and while Bell seemed to have some trouble early on, she comes into her own as her character ages. Larocque’s performance as young John is charmingly contagious, while Bell’s portrayal of an overbearing mother is disturbingly believable. The passage of time is helped by a good range of costumes and props that, while simple, demonstrate the changes the characters are going through.

However, the show loses steam in the second half. Some of this is due to the writing. The jokes are more contrived, and there are fewer of the big musical numbers that allow the actors to really shine. The bigger problem, though, is that the second half is mostly about Jen and her struggle to come to terms with her brother’s death. However, Bell’s performance continues to be overshadowed by Larocque’s, making it difficult to connect with her character.

John & Jen is a strong piece of theatre. The vocals are brilliant, the accompaniment is beautifully performed and the story is touching—I got the chills more than once. Again, a different space would have made the experience more enjoyable—The Studio Theatre isn’t doing this show any favours.

John & Jen runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 6. Tickets are $12 for students and seniors and $15 for adults and available at Destinations, Novel Idea or at the door.

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