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Benny & Joon Belongs on Broadway



I loved the 1993 film Benny & Joon that starred Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn and Julianne Moore. Now a musical at Paper Mill Playhouse, I love it even more. Thankfully book writer Kirsten Guenther’s has enhanced the script taking out unneeded material and making other material stand out. Add to that the lush enjoyment of some wonderful songs by Nolan Gasser and Mindi Dickstein, I was in musical heaven. Bryce Pinkham would win a Tony if this were on Broadway. He is so amazing in this role, you forget Johnny Depp ever was in this show. He embodies this character body, mind and soul. Hannah Elless is a star on the rise, as she captivates our hearts and Claybourne Elder adds to this trio of talent.

Claybourne Elder photo by Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade

The plot is as follows:

Hannah Elless photo by Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade

Benjamin “Benny” (Claybourne Elder) and his mentally ill sister Juniper “Joon” Pearl (Hannah Elless), live together following the accidental death of their parents. Benny’s friend Mike (Colin Hanlon) has his cousin Sam (Bryce Pinkham) staying with him. Joon joins a poker game at Mike’s and loses a bet that commits Sam to live with Benny & Joon. Benny is at first angry, but Joon bonds with this strange newcomer with a fascination for Buster Keton. In the meantime an isolated Sam connects with Ruthie (Tatiana Welchsler) who works in a diner. As Joon and Sam fall in love, Benny can not continue his romance with Ruthie because he is so stuck. Sam gets a job at a video store and when Benny hears the two are romantically involved, Benny throws Sam out, yells at Joon, and shows her a pamphlet about a group home that would be a better home for her. Sam and June runaway, but Joon becomes agitated and Sam gets her the help she needs. When Benny arrives at the hospital, the doctor tells him Joon doesn’t want to see him. He finds Sam in the waiting room, they argue. Benny apologizes to Joon, and allows her to get her own apartment, and tells her that Sam has come back for her. Benny and Joon reconcile and Sam and Joon are reunited, as are Benny and Ruthie.

Bryce Pinkham, Hannah Elless Photo by Jerry Dalia

This film was always a tear jerker, but as a musical even more so. There were times I could not tell if I had tears because I was laughing or crying as the show is so emotionally charged. It is tender, sentimental and highly moving as this brother and sister, who share such a tight bond try to make their way in the world. When another misfit is added to their duo, the stakes get pushed to the limits.

Hannah Elless, Bryce Pinkham photo by Jim Fox courtesy of The Old globe

Hannah Elless, makes Joon relatable and shines a light on the world of functioning schizophrenia. We feel her pain at wanting to lead a normal life. Claybourne Elder shows us a man who loves his sister so deeply that his life is being swallowed up whole. We root for both of these individuals to have a happy life. Their duet with the title song, solidifies their bond. Almost stealing the show is Bryce Pinkham as Sam. As he uses Keaton and movies to survive his childhood and life, his song “In My Head” will start the need for Kleenex. Pinkham makes us fall in love with this intriguing oddball whose heart is in the right place. His talent at physical comedy will astound. Rounding out this talented cast are Natalie Toro as Joon’s doctor, Paolo Montalban and Jacob Keith Watson as Benny’s garage and poker mates.

Hannah Elless, Jacob Keith Watson Claybourne Elder, Paolo Montalban, Colin Hanlon photo by Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade

Director Jack Cummings III, keeps the films whimsy and adds so much emotional energy. This is beautifully directed, especially in the number “Yes or No,” where Sam has told Joon he loves her and she is trying to sort out her response. It becomes a beautiful, sensual ache.

Bryce Pinkham photo by Jim Fox courtesy of The Old globe

Dane Laffrey’s set is adorable and highly clever as is R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting. Both capture how stuck we can get and how free we can be.

Claybourne Elder, Tatiana Welchsler photo by Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade

Composer Nolan Gasser has some numbers which are a delight such as “This, This, This,” “It’s a Shame,” “Happy” (performed by Elless on ukulele) and “Dinner and a Movie.” Then there are the tear jerkers “In My Head” and “One Good Day.” These are all enhanced by Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics. You also have the instrumentals for Sam such as “Sam’s Bread Dance,” “Grilled Cheese Ballet” and “At The Park” that are so lush and fulfilling.

All this is brought to life by music director/conductor/keyboardist J. Oconer Navarro and his orchestra, which are sensational.

Bryce Pinkham photo by Matthew Murphy For MurphyMade

Kirsten Guenther’s book made me laugh, cry and fall deeply in love with this show.

I really hope Benny & Joon moves to Broadway, because I want to see it again and I definitely want a CD. In the meantime head to New Jersey for this satisfying delightful musical that will surely touch your heart.

Benny & Joon: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive. Millburn, NJ until May 5th.

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email:


The Olivier Awards Return



Celebrate the very best in British theatre in a star-studded evening as the Olivier Awards return to the Royal Albert Hall on April 2nd.

Three-time Olivier Award nominee & Primetime Emmy winner, Hannah Waddingham will be hosting the awards for the first time.

The event will feature performances from all of the Best New Musical nominees, including The Band’s Visit, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Sylvia and Tammy Faye. Also performing will be Oklahoma! and Sister Act, both nominated for the Best Musical Revival award, as well as Disney’s Newsies, which has been nominated for Matt Cole’s choreography.

The multi-Olivier Award winner The Book of Mormon, will be performing to mark its ten-year anniversary in the West End. Additionally, special award winner Arlene Philips will be honored with a tribute from the cast of Grease.

The ceremony will be broadcast live on Magic Radio from 6pm with Ruthie Henshall and Alice Arnold hosting.

The highlights program will also be aired on ITV1 and ITVX at 10:15 pm in the UK and via Official London Theatre’s YouTube channel elsewhere.

And the nominees are:

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Out of Town

The Unpacking of the First Métis Man of Odesa, An Interview




Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNATwo People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova.

Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.

During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.

Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?

Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having their son during the pandemic.  The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.

What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?

For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process.  Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.

The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.

Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?

We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play.  We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.

Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!

Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…

We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months.  There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft.  Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.

What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?

For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art.  Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.

For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years.  The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.

The most rewarding?

Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine.  Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.

What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?

We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto.  We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine.  And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.

First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit

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Florence Welch, Martyna Majok, Rachel Chavkin and More On New Musical Gatsby Coming To A.R.T



Florence Welch Photo by De Wilde

Producers Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, Jordan Roth, and American Repertory Theater(A.R.T.) at Harvard University announced today that Gatsby, a brand-new musical stage adaptation of the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, will make its highly anticipated World Premiere at A.R.T. in 2024, and will be directed by Tony Award® winner Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.

Rachel Chavkin Photo Credit Erik Tanner

Gatsby will feature music by Florence Welch, the Grammy Award-nominated international rock star of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, the Oscar and Grammy Award nominee, with lyrics by Ms. Welch, and a book by Pulitzer Prize® winner Martyna Majok.

Martyna Majok by Josiah Bania

Gatsby will be produced at American Repertory Theater by special arrangement with Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, and Jordan Roth, in association with Robert Fox. Hannah Giannoulis serves as co-producer.

Sonya Tayeh

American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director; Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Executive Director) at Harvard University produces groundbreaking work to catalyze dialogue and transformation. Tony Award-winning and nominated productions include Jagged Little PillWaitressNatasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; All the Way; The Glass Menagerie; Pippin; Once; and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Its revival of 1776, a co-production with Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently touring nationally. Learn more at

Thomas Bartlett Photo Credit York Tillyer

Additional Gatsby news will be announced soon.

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