ST. PETERSBURG — Now that the heady noise of the busy local theater season has calmed to a whisper, there is time to go exploring beyond the traditional Sarasota borders to see what else is out there on stage.
I have been hearing a lot about the five-year-old freeFall Theatre, based in a former Christian Science Church in St. Petersburg, and now I understand why after seeing the company’s production of the Andrew Lippa-Tom Greenwald musical “John & Jen.”
It’s a small, almost precious and sung-through musical about a woman named Jen (played by Katie Zaffrann) and her relationships with her brother and her son, both named John and played by Chris Crawford. It’s predictable at times, but the score is engaging, with some sprightly melodies and a few touching ballads, even if the show sacrifices important details along the way.
What distinguishes the production is the approach by Artistic Director and Founder Eric Davis, scenic designer Jerid Fox and lighting designer Tom Hansen. They immerse the audience in the world of the show.
Viewers are seated on risers on either side of the flexible studio theater playing space, with the actors in the middle. On the walls, suspended from the ceilings and ingrained in the floor, are photos and front pages detailing some of the major world events during the course of the play, from 1952 to 1990. They are a background to the story, giving us a context of what’s happening around Jen and her Johns.
The two actors do a lot with a bed that slides in from a hidden space, or a set of bleachers and chairs, constantly transforming that open stage into seemingly more richly detailed bedrooms or ballfields.
And there are walls of televisions at either end, projecting images of Santa, baseballs, American flags and the characters as kids to fit the moment.
Crawford delivers a strong and committed performance by actor Chris Crawford, who plays brother John in the first half, and the son in the second. He is best in each character’s younger days, particularly two Christmas scenes that are full of life and the harsh reality of the world outside his bedroom. Crawford goes through some alternately subtle or drastic transitions to become grown-up versions of both characters.
As the brother, he deals with a troubled home life and takes a different route out of the house than Jen, who becomes a hippie in the mid 1960s. But the script and score don’t let us fully see what leads to his decisions. Is it force or personal choice? As the son, he tries to emerge from his mother’s overprotective nature.
As Jen, Zaffrann is also best in her character’s younger days, being a bossy older sister, or trying to be a playful mom. But Zaffrann doesn’t mine the emotional depths of several songs, particularly at the end when Jen realizes she has to let her son grow up. There are a couple of potentially powerful ballads that seem nearly empty instead of full of wide-ranging emotions and realizations.
But the production is full of ideas, and the inventive use of the space makes me eager to see how Davis and his company will explore other new and more traditional shows in the future.
JOHN & JEN
Music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Tom Greenwald, book by Lippa and Greenwald. Directed by Eric Davis. Reviewed May 9 at freeFall Theatre Company, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Through May 26. Tickets are $36-$46. (727) 498-5205; freefalltheatre.com