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.
The plot is as follows:
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.