The Hamilton Choir Project, has for the past three seasons, presented several choral focused concerts, on the local arts scene. The company is the brainchild of Michael Rode and his partner Amber Mills, and with this project, they have now branched outward into theatrical production. Unsurprisingly, they have set their sites on the world of stage musicals, which allow them to bring their musicality, to a very different kind of audience.
Their first offering is a 1995 two hander musical called John & Jen, written by Andrew Lippa, who went on to write the music for the Broadway musical, Big Fish and Tom Greenwald, who went on to never write for the stage again. Unsurprisingly, for a musical produced by a choir, this version of the play, is exceptionally well sung!
The two performers, Amber Mills, as “Jen”, and Dante Pietrangeli, as “John”, handle the complex vocals, which include contrapuntal melodies, recitation like patter, and deliberately dissonant harmonies, with great skill. As the narrator of the play, and transforming herself, from a six year old child, all the way to the mother of a teenage son, Mills gives us an impressive demonstration, of her skills as a storyteller, and recountour. Pietrangeli, as well, gave a very strong performance, playing two different characters, and got most of the humour and laughs, to be found in the script. Both actors, handled the choreography by Jen Cooper, with skill, energy, style, and panache.
Andrew Lippa’s score reminded me a great deal, of some of Sondheim’s work, and for just two vocalists, to sing constantly, for almost two hours, demonstrates lots of talent, vocal training and a great deal of rehearsal by the company.
As I have noted, many times before in reviews on the local theatre scene, musicals are a much harder bit of theatre to create, as it can be hard to find the performers you need to execute them to the required standard, that they demand in order to work. Happily, with this production, I can report that the standard, was exceeded, with ease.
A three piece ensemble of cello, percussion, and piano, under the direction of Kate Boose, provide able and valuable support, to the two vocalists, and give the production much of its energy and momentum. The fact that the band, was onstage, almost part of the stage action was a bonus.
Shaw Festival veteran, Krista Colosimo, directs the play, with a sure and steady hand, mining beautiful imagery and pathos, out of a dramatically underdeveloped stage play. She has cast the production superbly, and on a bare stage, transforms us through time and space, and much of the success of this production comes from her thoughtful insight into the characters, and the situations that they find themselves in. I must also note the clever, but sadly uncredited, lighting design, which added a great deal to the staging.
I would describe this musical, as a piece of “chamber music”, that gives us, a stage version of the television show, The Wonder Years, but in this case without actor Fred Savage’s annoying voice–overs, in that it covers the experience of one family, through the late 1950s, through the maelstrom of the late 1960s, and into the 1980s. What is remarkable about the play is that we see much of this turbulent history, through the eyes of two children.
While I must applaud the talent, commitment and sheer perseverance, of this company of professional theatre creators, in mounting this production, of John & Jen, so successfully and well. I can’t help but note, that the play itself, has flaws, that make its staging problematic. The songs themselves, are not evocative of the era that the play is set in, but rather come off as generic Broadway styled show tunes.
There are no musical references to Rock and Roll, or to the Woodstock era psychedelic counter culture protest songs of the Vietnam War. There are no homages to ’70s Disco tunes, or ’80s New Wave pop tunes, so absent then are, any of the key allusions that ground us into the sense of time and period. Other than a single pop culture reference to the Beatles song, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, the play might have spanned the years, 1990 to 2019, as far as the songs themselves are concerned.
John & Jen is an early work, by a songwriter that later went on to Broadway success, so it demonstrates burgeoning talent, that led to greater things. The play seems to continue to be performed, long after it should have been put to rest, as it is easily licensed through Music Theatre International, and with its smaller cast and inexpensive staging requirements, means it has been revived by students and community theatres, over and over again. A recent 2015 off Broadway revival, starring Kate Baldwin, died a quick death.
Still as this first production, by the Hamilton Choir Project, demonstrates, that with luck, we can look forward to more rarely produced musicals, on the local arts scene. If they are as well rendered as this one was, then we have much to look forward to. I for one, will be keen to see what musical they may offer us next, and hope that, perhaps something Canadian, might be the next project. V
JOHN & JEN
By Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald.
Presented by the Hamilton Choir Project
At the Player's Guild of Hamilton
80 Queen St South.
June 27, 28, 29. 2019 at 8 pm