Sometimes, as with many an opera, big emotions and big production values go hand in hand. With Music Theatre of Madison's john & jen, big emotions must be conveyed through simple staging in the modest environs of the West Side Club. While it's a bit of a gamble, MTM pulls it off admirably.
john & jen manages to be both intimate and epic. It's intimate because it employs only two actors playing three characters, yet it takes on a grander scale because the action occurs over four decades. In the first act, John and Jen are a brother and sister growing up in the '50s and '60s and coping with an abusive dad, who's never seen on stage.
In act two, Jen is a single mom raising a son named John. Young John's namesake, sadly, was killed in Vietnam. Naming her son after her brother is a way for Jen not only to honor her sibling, but to heal the rift that had developed between them in their young-adult years, when she turned into a hippie while he enlisted.
As written by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, john & jen doesn't really throw us any curveballs. Jen makes an unsurprising transition from college radical to working mom. Her son moves from a ball of hyperactive energy to an edgy teenager to a young man seeking his independence.
Yet MTM's production - with Paul Milisch and Meghan Randolph in the title roles - is more affecting than one might anticipate. In the first act, the siblings strike a note of hopeful idealism with the show's most catchy tune, "Think Big." In act two, there's plenty of humor during a Little League scene in which an overzealous Jen embarrasses her young son.
The simple staging generally doesn't detract from the show, and even benefits it at times. As Randolph, who directs as well as acts, explains in her program notes, the creators indicate in their script that the show should be performed simply. There are no fancy costumes or special effects for the two-person cast to fall back on.
Frankly, it takes guts for two actors to bare themselves with so little to hide behind, and Milisch and Randolph are both solid, likable singers and actors. While the musical's creators could have made more unexpected choices, Music Theatre of Madison makes the experience a worthwhile one, conjuring moments that are truly funny and truly sad from middling material.
john & jen, Presented by Music Theatre of Madison at the West Side Club, through July 20