NEWLY ADDED CURTAIN CALL VIDEO!
by Adam Cohen
Based on the 1993 movie, Paper Mill Playhouse presents the east coast premiere of a sparkling new musical “Benny & Joon.” This is a lovable, witty, spry musical with an incredible cast of eight.
The story follows brother and sister Benny (Claybourne Elder) and Joon (Hannah Elless), who lost their parents in an accident. Benny has cared for his younger sister over the past 18 years constricting his life for her. Joon’s schizophrenia is (mostly) controlled by medication. His main goal in life is getting them through the day without incident. Benny is a tightly wound car mechanic garage owner while Joon is empathetic and artistic. Elder has a tremendous singing voice and his Benny is brilliantly uptight. It’s an adept portrayal.
They have a tight knit caring group of people in their lives – including two of Benny’s employees – mechanics Waldo (Jacob Keith Watson) and Larry (Paolo Montalban) and bedpan changing Mike (Colin Hanlon). In a weekly poker game filled with wacky bets (Teddy Ruxpin), Benny acquires Mike’s cousin Sam (Bryce Pinkham) who changes everyone’s lives.
Sam is a devotee of silent screen comic actor/director Buster Keaton. In this, Pinkham gives a deliciously physical, marvelous performance with astounding grace, sincerity and warmth. His Sam, who suffered physical and mental abuse at home, speaks in movie quotes – imitating the original actors and then stating the movie title and year. It’s truly Pinkham’s show. His mystified facial expressions, effortless slapstick and ever-present movie imitations (ET, The Godfather, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Stewart) enliven his scenes. This is a gifted, mesmerizing performance.
Joon is a quirky presence. Diagnoses of schizophrenia are uttered. But in the hands of Hannah Elless she’s equally as awkward in life as Sam. She’s a passionate painter, verbally adept, and highly spirited with a unique zest. The performance is electric. Her singing is beautiful. She and Pinkham have a glorious alchemy…which clearly threatens Benny.
Sam and Joon quickly bond and eventually Benny warms to him. A grilled cheese meal made from an iron is a deft bit of physicality. Sam is anointed as care taker to Joon while Benny works and woos one-time film actress/waitress/building manager Ruthie (a lovely Tatiana Wechsler). One brilliant bit has a Benny and Ruthie on a date watching her movie, which, of course, Sam quotes perfectly.
How the romance pans out and its repercussions are the arc of the musical. But it’s mostly about the codependence of the siblings, their grief and acceptance. The production’s music by Nolan Gasser, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and book by Kirsten Guenther, is delightful. It completely captures the whimsy and the serious-mindedness of the film. The lyrics are mostly rhyming couplets but it works – especially in the tender title lullabye Benny and Joon sing to one another. They craft, warm intimate songs that deepen the core relationships…especially Sam and Joon’s paean to raisins. Michael Starobin’s rich orchestrations, provide a full-bodied sound.
This is a highly visual production. Director Jack Cummings III keeps things moving at a sprightly pace. In conjunction with scenic designer Dane Laffrey they construct a proscenium within proscenium that mirrors the constrictions of Benny and the cast to the town they live in. The aerial view of Spokane with representations of every building the actors visit adorned with spotlights for the one they are currently in. Set pieces, pushed by the actors enter from stage right and exit to the left. Another deft, precise touch.
Rather than lament another movie to stage production, let’s celebrate the rich compassion and soul enlivening singing, memorable performances from gifted actors, and enjoy this wonderful musical. Benny and Joon is a tender, witty, wry, highly enjoyable musical.
Opening Night Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Video Curtain Call: Magda Katz
Tickets and more information at www.papermill.org(22 Brookside Drive) in Millburn, NJ.
Thru May 5, 2019