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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Benny & Joon
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell


Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Jim Fox
The story told by the 1993 romantic comedy movie Benny & Joon is sentimental and largely discards realism. However, in the new stage musical version, it transcends expected limitations and serves as the basis for a highly styled, richly inventive, sad and funny fantasy which employs classic silent movie pantomime to create a magical world of its own. The last musical I can recall that was in the same sphere as Benny & Joon was the 2002 Broadway production of Michel Legrand's (with Jeremy Sams's adaptation of Didier van Cauwelaert's libretto) underrated Amour.

The setting is the rather typical small city of Spokane, Washington, during the 1990s. The mood and story are in a minor key. The single Benny is the proprietor of a small auto repair shop. His life is devoted to caring for his younger sister Joon with whom he lives in the house in which they grew up. Joon suffers from severe schizophrenia and tends to get into troublesome situations when she leaves their house on her own. She chafes against intrusions into her space and activities (she likes to paint) by the series of daytime caregivers Benny has hired to watch over her. Joon's psychiatrist has been pressuring the staunchly resistant Benny to admit Joon into a group residence.

A new arrival to the neighborhood is Sam, a character whose invention is the linchpin for the principal concept of this production. One need not be highly analytical to observe that Sam is himself dysfunctional. He has never held a job and has been thrown out of the family home by his mother and sent to Spokane to live with and be cared for by his cousin Mike. Sam dresses and carries and conducts himself in the manner of Buster Keaton (considered by many to be the best of all silent movie comedians), performs silent film comedy routines (most famously, a Charlie Chaplin routine from The Gold Rush), and sprinkles classic lines from movies into his conversations, imitating their on-screen delivery and adding the name and year of release of the movie.

Mike manipulates matters so that Sam ends up being both the tenant and responsibility of Benny. Sam happily agrees to Benny's request that he care for Joon while Benny is at his repair shop. Sam treats Joon with sensitivity and affection, and, no surprise, they fall in love.

There are surprises to come that are most effective, and make it clear that Benny & Joon's creative team has a valid artistic vision, and are not just settling for romantic fluff.

Bryce Pinkham's award-caliber Sam is the heart and soul of this production. He gracefully and gently coaxes all of the humor out of the comic routines which he performs without ever sacrificing the integrity of his characterization. Maintaining the illusion of ease and gracefulness, Pinkham perfectly performs the devilishly difficult physicality required of him. Additionally, Pinkham brings endearing sweetness and pensive sadness to his role.

Hannah Elless smoothly integrates the wide range of emotions which inform her Joon. Claybourne Elder is a perfect fit for the appealing, but emotionally volatile Benny. Tatiana Wechsler is appealing as Ruthie, the simpatico waitress who will be there for both Benny and Joon. Elless, Elder, and Wechsler are all strong, pleasing singers.

Natalie Toro deftly portrays both Joon's departing caregiver (Mrs. Smail) as well as her psychiatrist (Dr. Cortez). Colin Hanlon (Mike), Paolo Montalban (Larry), and Jacob Keith Watson (Waldo/ Video Store Owner) bring individuality to their roles as friends and/or employees of Benny.

The music by Nolan Gasser and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein are at their most evocative and beguiling when they are light, bouncy, and old fashioned. This style of music is employed during Sam's multiple evocations of silent film comedy and in the production's most poignant and appealing songs, which include "Happy," "Dinner and a Movie," and the title song. The ballads and conversational songs are more workman-like than inspired. As I listened to "One Good Day" with its predictable, repetitive notes, I was struck by the absence of any use of the Sondheim tactic of employing variations in tune, harmonies and rhythm to naturally enable the voice to emphasize the varying intensity and emotions of the conversation. The stridently anthemic "You Meet a Man" will likely please some, but it is out of place in this sweetly moving musical. It is Ruthie's big (second act) number, which should be more in keeping with her and this musical's character.

The book by Kirsten Guenther is extremely effective. However, there is room to more finely hone the book to eliminate some character inconsistency. Specifically, even allowing for a revealed backstory, one of the leading characters is made to take one unbelievable step far out of character. In fact, the backstory would most likely rule out that step. I also feel that Dr. Cortez comes across as an arrogant authority figure who knows the accepted practices of her profession, but is tone deaf to the individual reality and needs of her clients. Out of nowhere, Cortez makes a 180-degree turnabout. Just a couple of lines acknowledging her earlier insensitivity could do wonders. While I'm at it, I overheard other audience members express hostility to Joon's observation, to which Benny acquiesces, that Christ is actually a zombie. I now think that in respect for the sensitivity of some Christians, another weird idea could be used to explore the vagaries of Joon's brain.

The choreography of Scott Rink and scenic design by Dane Laffrey are clearly and effectively tailored to augment director Jack Cummings III's inventive, highly stylized direction. Cummings has managed to create a musical which remains faithful to the movie and is strikingly original at one and the same time. This is illustrated by the production's opening scene whose description I have adapted in part from the script:

A man dressed like Buster Keaton is perusing a coffee-table book titled The Look of Buster Keaton . The man is dressed in clothing which is identical to that worn by Keaton in the book's cover photograph. The man looks at his pocket watch. A train whistle sounds, and a miniature railway train glides across the stage and stops (at the station). The man (Sam) sits on a deck on the end of the train, and rides it across the stage. As the train arrives at its destination, the streets of a large neighborhood (its foliage, streets, houses, shops, offices, et al, are seen from overhead). The man gets off the train and takes out a map, which he folds into an origami bird. Holding onto the paper bird with an upwardly outstretched hand, the man runs across the stage and toward his destination

I guess that all of us have had the experience of seeing a new play or musical that truly touches and moves us but yet is imperfect and feels so delicate, so unusual, so out of tune with the zeitgeist that we can't help but fear that it may not have popular appeal. For me, Benny & Joon is such a musical. I sincerely hope that my fear is unfounded. For the qualities which this musical production abundantly possesses—musicality, warmth, whimsy, wistfulness, eccentricity, and sensitivity—so richly enhance this story that I believe Benny, Joon and Sam have found their ideal home on the musical stage.

Benny & Joon, through May 5, 2019, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday - Thursday 7:30 PM; Friday & Saturday 8 PM; Sunday 7 pm. Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.

Creative:
Book: Kirsten Guenther
Music: Nolan Gasser
Lyrics: Mindi Dickstein
Based on the MGM motion picture by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil
Director: Jack Cummings
Choreographer: Scott Rink

Cast:
Benny: Claybourne Elder
Joon: Hannah Elless
Mike: Colin Hanlon
Larry: Paolo Montalban
Sam: Bryce Pinkham
Dr. Cortez/Mrs. Smail: Natalie Toro
Waldo/Video Store Owner: Jacob Keith Watson
Ruthie: Tatiana Wechsler
Sam (at certain performances): Conor Ryan


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