John & Jen offers musical theater from a different perspective

If you start thinking about musical theater, images of chorus lines, detailed dance numbers or elaborate Broadway sets probably come to mind. But then there are musicals like John & Jen, a two-person show projected against the backdrop of heavy topics like abuse and the Vietnam War that demand a gentle touch.

“You think about big musicals, and things are always constantly moving and I have to remind myself, this show is not about that — it’s more about realism,” says Mark Jones. He’s co-producing, co-directing and co-starring in John & Jen with actress Kelli Mullinix and piano player John Crawley. The show runs Friday, Jan. 9, to Sunday, Jan. 25 at Asheville Community Theatre’s black box stage, 35below. Adds Jones, “Even the original director tells you in the [musical’s book], ‘It’s a play about a sister and a brother. It’s about Jen’s journey. … In telling the story, simple is better.’”

This minimalist approach (the set consists of little more than a few boxes full of props and costume changes often take place within the action of the performance) lends itself to the cozy confines of 35below. It’s a small performance space (40-odd seats) that creeps right up to the front row. “I’d love to have this big, elaborate set, but in a space like this, I have to remind myself, this is an intimate show, this is just two people the whole time,” Jones says. “If we did it on the main stage, upstairs [at the ACT] I think it would get lost. [The audience is] forced to connect to it when they’re this close. It’s like they’re eavesdropping.”

Much of this is due to the personal and emotional aspects of John & Jen. Originally performed off-Broadway beginning in 1995 — with music by Andrew Lippa and lyrics by Tom Greenwald — it centers on John (Jones) and his older sister Jen (Mullinix). The two grow up in the ’50s and ’60s as tightknit siblings, but their relationship is strained by a difficult home life and gradual political schisms between the two. Without giving too much away, things come to a head at the end of the first act, before changing directions in the second. It makes for a somber, emotional show, even with the singing, as the bulk of the plot is exposited through music.

This is, in particular, a meaningful show for Jones. “When I heard the cast recording in the early ’90s, I remember, I put it on in the car,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about it, I was just listening to the music. And when I got to the end of Act 1 I was in tears. There was no reason to read the synopsis because I knew what was going on. And the music was just so powerful.”

He went on to perform the first act of the musical at one of the theater festivals at the 2007 Southeastern Theatre Conference. Jones won the competition. Now, years later, he sees John & Jen as a bit of a passion project. “I love the show so much that I wanted to do it again before I was too old to do it,” Jones says.

He immediately went after Mullinix, who’s directed in the past and who’s worked with him as musical director in a few previous productions. They describe each other as best friends. “Mark and I are so close, similar to a sibling relationship, so I can put myself in that place with him,” says Mullinix. “I was flattered that Mark asked me to do this show with him. It’s a different kind of role for me — a more serious and dramatic character than I have ever played before. I felt that if he thought I could do it, then I would go for it.”

As Jones describes it, the molding of the finished product will be an organic and cooperative effort involving him, Mullinix and Crawley. It’s one where the interpersonal nature of it all leads to something intrinsically special. “I give her freedom, and she gives me freedom. We work together. There will be no one listed as ‘director,’ it’s just going to be ‘produced, directed and starring,’” says Jones. “I told Kelli, we get to a moment, let’s just see what happens. Sing and let’s just see what happens.”

WHAT: John & Jen
WHERE: 35below at Asheville Community Theatre, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Jan. 9-25. Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. $20

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