Smile Politely

They grow up so fast

“…death and taxes…” might be the only two unavoidable things in life, but growing older is running a close third — ask any parent. And in the case of the musical John & Jen, the adage can apply both to the content as well as the stars.

When Smile Politely last saw Kyle Klein II, it was in 2013 as part of the children’s chorus in Les Miserables during the summer, then scored the principal boy’s role in How I Became A Pirate at Parkland that fall. One of the reasons C-U hasn’t seen him around town quite so much is that he’s been traveling to act in roles throughout the Midwest and surrounding area – from Columbus to Bristol, PA, with a few shows in Chicago for good measure. Now that he’s wandered back home, it will be for one last show before he graduates high school. 

The show in question is called John & Jen – a two-actor play about growing older (or not getting the chance to) – and will be staged over the next two weekends in Parkland’s Second Stage theatre. Written by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, this chamber musical focuses on the lives of three people, actually: John, his sister Jen, and her son John. As children, Jen had reasons to want to protect her younger brother, but discovers her limits and ends up naming her son after him. Requiring the actors to portray different stages of life from the 1950s to the ‘90s, and calling for the same actress to play ages five to fifty, this script would be a challenge for any actor, making it an ambitious choice for the teenaged Klein.

Fortunately, the production company, Armadillo Productions, was able to secure some accomplished professionals to oversee the staging. Stephen Fiol, with his background in opera and his recent direction of another chamber musical, First Lady Suite, agreed to direct. Cara Chowning of the U of I’s School of Music is the musical director, and Sophie Lanser is the co-star. Lanser has starred in musicals in Saint Louis, and is a current student at Illinois.

Curious about the independent production, Smile Politely sought a discussion with director Stephen Fiol.

Smile Politely: With your background in opera, and your recent projects of Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof, a two-person play seems like it would be quite a different animal. What was your favorite part about directing such a small show? What was your biggest challenge? 

Stephen Fiol: My preferred moments, in all productions I direct, incline toward directing the scenes with close interactions between a few characters.  It calls for precision and focused acting, both qualities that effectively describe John & Jen and that I find attractive and very satisfying.  Certainly large productions too are enjoyable to direct, I merely mention my predilection as director for the more intimate moments in a production.  The intimacy of John & Jen was one of the attractions to me in directing this show.  The largest challenge is undoubtedly dealing with the arch of maturation of both characters in each act and finding the simplest and most honest way of communicating this to the audience.

SP: John & Jen appears to step foot in every country on the emotional map. What tools and methods did you use to help two young thespians make that journey? 

Fiol: Gabriel Barre, internationally acclaimed stage director who directed John & Jen, wrote  in his ‘Director’s Note’ included in the published libretto:

“The show, as it evolved in readings, workshops and productions, became simpler and more suggestive – leaving more to the audiences’ imagination.  For instance, we found that it was not necessary to relay to them in which year each scene was taking place – the dialogue and material is enough.  ….We found that the material worked best when little or no effort was made to “play” a seven-year-old or a nine-year-old or etc.  Again – honest, organic, moment to moment acting is much more important.” 

We tried to follow this approach and understand the character at a given moment in their lives and to know what John or Jen would want.  For young people who may not have  experienced adulthood, marriage, parenting and their consequential impact on relationships this production can be a challenging assignment. 

SP: “John(s)” seems like a role that challenges the actor in another way: playing two related young men of similar ages but with very different characteristics. Other than costume, how is Kyle differentiating his two different John-s?

Fiol: The differentiation between the two John-s necessarily comes from the relationship between John first as a younger sibling to Jen and then as the son of Jen.  Aging is a common experience for all of us but what is of interest is the manner in which relationships are defined and develop as we age.  While the historical context of ones life experience may respond to specific details such as the Vietnam War or the sexual revolution of the 60’s, the resonance of relationships between siblings and of parents to children often follows a familiar arch whether in contemporary life or an earlier time.  And so Kyle has spent time unpacking the essential qualities of John’s two developing relationships and then placing them in the context of the story.

SP: “Jen” seems like a challenging role for a young woman, as she has to age from 6 to 50 years old, without glossing over much. What did Sophie do to prepare for advanced-speed aging? 

Fiol: This musical is really a story of Jen’s journey.  And we have spent time talking about what personal qualities change and evolve as one ages, then placing that understanding in the context of time, place and two very different relationships.  Sophie has thought about her character’s desires, wants and needs moving from childhood as an older sister to the mother of a son.  I hope the audience will agree that she has met this challenge. 

SP: Since it spans five decades that neither actor was alive to remember, what kind of research did you have the cast perform in order to get to a better understanding of the mindset of the 50s through the 90s? Do you think pop culture stereotypes helped or hindered their process? 

Fiol: In John & Jen we are not telling a true or factual story but we are hoping to express true emotions as related to the character by virtue of their age, relationship to the other character and then placed against the relevant social/historical issues of those times.   As a cast we discussed the issues of the emotional development for each character as they move through the story and the evolving relationships in each act.  But given that I lived through the arch of this story, 1952-1990, experienced the social tensions – I was drafted into the Army in 1967 – and the social highlights – I arrived in the United States in 1963 when the Beatles came, I was able to provide an historical canvas on which Kyle and Sophie were able to place their characters.  Not just the facts, but the likely emotional impact on John and Jen.  The intensity of the 1960s and 70s are difficult for individuals who were not there to fully understand.  Pop culture, but more specifically the technological advances of the past 25 years (Sophie is now in her early 20s) presents challenges for both actors.  For example, in Act II when John is graduating from high school and Jen is nervous about having the camera ready to capture the moment, Sophie had never handled a film loading camera and the implications of that technological limitation.

SP: What else would you like SP readers to know about John & Jen?

Fiol: This story dwells on issue of love, separation, anger, forgiveness, intimacy, joy, insensitivity, ‘helicopter’ mothering, regret, suffering, and much more.  In short this story should speak to every audience member whether young or old.  The story is moving and meaningful and we hope all will be transported through the talents of Kyle and Sophie.

To be transported through time by John & Jen, get your tickets online or by calling 312-788-7236. The performances will be held at Parkland’s Second Stage Theatre from February 23rd through March 5th with showtimes at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sundays. General admission is $25, with discounts available for student, seniors, and children. 

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