Thursday, April 26 , 2018, 12:24 pm | Fair 60º


Review: ‘John & Jen’ Not Your Typical Love Story

Out of the Box Theatre Company’s newest production features two actors, three characters and a multitude of songs

Out of the Box Theatre Company’s newest offering, John & Jen, is a love story, but not in the standard sense.

Sure, it has joy and tears, redemption and loss, and spans decades. But this is the story of love between a big sister and her little brother, and when she grows up, between this woman and her son. Exploring the many facets of familial love — for our siblings, parents, children — this show is proof that romance is not necessary for soaring, emotion-rich drama.

Oh, and it’s a musical, with something like 80 percent sung rather than spoken. This might sound unwieldy or difficult to follow, but it really works. Andrew Lippa (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and Tom Greenwald wrote the music and lyrics, respectively. The songs are more like dialogue set to music and move the story along while revealing deeper layers of the characters.

Samantha Eve, Out of the Box founder and artistic director, does a fantastic job at the helm of this production, as it is polished and professional in every sense. Musical director Mandee Sikich also plays piano and is joined by Andrew Saunders on cello and Chris In on drums. The live music adds a rich dimension, and supports the actors’ voices beautifully.

Emily Jewell is Jen, the sister fiercely protective of her little brother, John. After he is killed in Vietnam, she has a son, his namesake, who struggles to fill those shoes.

Jewell has appeared in four out of five OOTB productions, and was vocal director for the fifth, Spring Awakening. Her most recent role was Kate Monster, the romantic lead, in Santa Barbara City College’s Avenue Q this summer. Her rich, sweet singing voice and natural acting style make her a joy to watch in moments dramatic and comedic, and here she gets a chance at both. Watch for her slow-mo mom-on-the-sidelines moment.

As John — both brother and son — Tad Murroughs displays great range in both his acting and vocals. With only minor changes of costume — a bathrobe, baseball cap and letterman’s jacket — he shows us the adoring little brother growing up and away from his sister as time and distance separate them. And as son, he is again able to illustrate the character’s growth, and the different dynamic of child to parent, although it is clear that Jen is trying to somehow replicate her brother.

A snappy, fast-paced and funny interlude in the second act utilizing talk shows to summarize the trauma of John’s teen years provides a refreshing break from the intensity of the storyline. It is also a chance for the actors to take on different characters briefly, and seems to act as palate cleanser for both them and the audience before heading into the final, heart-rending scenes.

Two actors, three characters, a multitude of songs to express all they go through with guts, humor and humanity — it’s not your ordinary evening of theater. But then again, with shows like Reefer Madness, Assassins and Spring Awakening, Out of the Box has proven itself to be anything but ordinary, thankfully.

John & Jen runs through Oct. 14 at Center Stage Theater. Click here for tickets and information.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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