Songs of love and hurt
Blue Room produces chamber musical John and Jen
Michael Mazur first became familiar with the musical John and Jen when he lived in New York City, where it debuted Off Broadway in 1995. Now he’s directing the two-person production for the Blue Room Theatre, set to open Jan. 17.
The 38-year-old Mazur ("I’m named after the national dance of Poland [the mazurka]!” he says, laughing) teaches musical theater at CSU Chico. He received his master’s degree in theater from NYU and lived in New York City before moving to Cleveland, which he called home before coming to Chico a year ago.
The Blue Room’s production of John and Jen, the innovative two-person (plus piano player) musical written by Grammy-nominated American composer Andrew Lippa and lyricist Tom Greenwald, stars Chico State theater students Ross Lacy and Sarah Cuc (pronounced “Cook"). Cuc won the department’s inaugural Carol Channing Arts Scholarship last school year, and was directed by Mazur in Chico State’s spring 2007 musical The King and I.
John and Jen, as Mazur warmly described it in his bright-eyed way, is “a very intimate show” about a brother and sister growing up in the ‘60s in a house with an abusive father. Early in the play, Jen, who is the big sister, makes a pact to protect John no matter what happens. As the story plays out, Jen goes off to college as soon as she can and becomes “a major hippie,” while John ends up joining the military as his father wants him to.
“It’s very powerful,” said Mazur. “The play examines the effect of abuse on children, the effects of abuse on their personality. We never meet the father, we only hear about him through [John and Jen’s] experience.”
“The play is very relevant, obviously, for 2008,” Mazur pointed out, “because it is dealing with war and the conflict between the brother and sister because of war. But John and Jen are bonded forever even though they are on opposite sides of politics.”
Even though the play is about the two siblings, “the arc of the show,” as Mazur put it, “is Jen’s journey. It’s about tolerance, acceptance, blame. Should some of the blame [for the way things turn out] be put on the father? On the brother? Or did Jen bring some of it on herself?”
Mazur praised Cuc’s and Lacy’s acting abilities in pulling off this two-person show that requires the actors to age from early childhood (a baby in Lacy’s case) to adulthood without the use of makeup or anything other than the most minimal props.
“The actors have to create [the effect] with their facial expressions, with gestures,” explained Mazur, clearly proud of his actors. “They can’t do it with costume changes. There’s not even a backstage, and the play moves along too quickly for that.”
Mazur also praised Cuc’s “strong female lead that’s very complex and interesting,” adding that both actors “are doing a phenomenal job with the complexity of the characters.”
Not to be overlooked is the very visible, on-stage pianist, Dara Scholz, who moved to Chico in June with her husband, David Scholz, a new faculty member in Chico State’s Music Department. Scholz’s presence is integral to the play, both in providing the music for a play that is mostly sung, including much of the dialogue, and, as Mazur pointed out, to remind the audience that this is theater—not a movie, not TV, where the music is part of a soundtrack
“I haven’t done that many musicals where I’ve been right on the stage,” said Scholz. “I feel more a part of what’s going on … And I haven’t really come across a show that’s this music-intensive. I think it’s such a strong show. When we did the sing-through before Christmas, when the final song comes back that is heard at the beginning, I almost got goose bumps. And Sarah was crying at the end.”
“I’m very, very proud of this play. I’m so excited. … And the Blue Room is the perfect space for this play,” Mazur summed up. “It’s an intimate space and there’s not a bad seat in the house. … I want to get an audience to feel the emotional connection to these characters.”