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He Says: Paper Mill’s Benny & Joon, the Musical Sweetly Plays for Keeps On a Ukulele



The spotlight, as it should be, is on the star, Bryce Pinkham (Broadway’s A Gentleman’s Guide…., RTC’s Holiday Inn) from the first second of Paper Mill Playhouse‘s Benny and Joon, giving us the wide-eyed look like he knows we won’t be able to resist him. He then, jumps on board, in Buster Keaton-like fashion, for a quirky train ride forward into this whimsical new musical based on that sweet-natured film from 1993 that lovingly starred Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson. Here on the expansive stage in Jersey, the musical adaptation of the movie has found the way to cook up the flavor and the temperature that this fairytale-like story needs, taking the innocent wonder of the film, even though it and this musical has somewhat of an overly simplistic look at mental disorders and family dynamics, and turned it into a one-man pantomime of juggling and mimicry.

Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse_PHOTO 1
Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham. Photo by Jim Cox (2017) courtesy of The Old Globe.

It’s the perfect medicine for the effervescent and charming Pinkham to give. To roller skate and iron forth, utilizing all his gifts and a few I didn’t even know he had, all for Joon, touchingly played by Hannah Elless (Broadway’s Bright Star) and us to enjoy. Their togetherness is sweet, like marshmellow popcorn and root beer floats. I only wish the music by Nolan Gasser (Start Me Up) and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein (Little Women) lived up to the heights of his swingingly fun performance. The brother and sister title song is charming and catchy, but too many moments, especially in Act One, an action, like a poker game, gets singled out for musicalization, with very little meaning or effect, while other more emotional engagements are left for Kirsten Guenther (Mrs. Sharp) the book writer, to explore and deliver. Even Pinkham’s song, “In My Head“, with music direction by J. Oconor Navarro (Public Works’ Twelfth Night) and orchestration by Michael Starobin (Broadway’s Once On This Island), starting out, gave me hope. Those first few lyrical lines made me “Happy“, like Joon’s ukulele song, but then, in an instant, that optimism is beaten down midway through in a blast that doesn’t quite fit with the rest. “It’s A Shame” for “This, This, This” and for that.

Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse_PHOTO 2
Hannah Elless and Claybourne Elder. photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

The other half of this sad but entangled broken-up family, Benny, played steadily by not the strongest voiced Claybourne Elder (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…) flails along, stuttering with sweetness when talking to the engaging Ruthie, sweetly embodied by Tatiana Wechsler (Acting Co.’s Othello), or defensive and dismissive of Joon’s psychotherapist, Dr. Cortez, well-played by Natalie Toro (Broadway’s A Tale of Two Cities). These relationships feel like they are thrust on the handsome Benny, not by obvious choice, but both don’t really click. At least, not as well as he does with his three work place buddies, Mike, devilishly well played by Colin Hanlon (Broadway’s Falsettos); Larry, cheerily portrayed by Paolo Montalban (PH’s Bella…); and Waldo, played to the max by the fun Jacob Keith Watson (Broadway’s Carousel), who also has a great time with Pinkham as the Video Store Owner and their deliciously fun dance, choreographed by Scott Rink (Transport Group’s Hello Again), and song, “I Can Help“.  And they do, as these three have a joyful and mischievous chemistry that is in short supply in Benny’s life, but it’s hard and not fair to fault the actors, as most are “good fish“, swimming in unclear water with no real strong dramatic pathway. Unfortunately, what they sing about can’t compare in the slightest to one brilliant film recreation or plate trick by Pinkham. Bryce just can’t be outdone or ignored. No wonder Joon falls for him, even when the show gives little time for his gorgeous voice, the performance dazzles.

Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse_PHOTO 9
Hannah Elless, Jacob Keith Watson, Claybourne Elder, Paolo Montalban, and Colin Hanlon; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

As directed by Jack Cummings III (CSC/Transport Group’s Summer and Smoke), the Act One action is playfully and eccentrically set on its side, courtesy of set and costume designer Dane Laffrey (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening), with clever lighting by R. Lee Kennedy (Transport Group’s The Audience), and solid sound by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels). The choices work, for the initial moments, but the wheeling in and wheeling out, although sometimes fun and clever, gets overused as much as that treadmill. This show is playing for keeps, I’m guessing, overstaying in the overhead neighborhood view as long as that eccentric but lovable houseguest. Act Two finally gives us a break from the furniture on wheels, and in many ways, even when the songs fail in being deep, emotional, or meaningful, at least in Act Two, the moments feel more cleverly chosen. Benny and Joon, the Musical finds a bit of weight within the familial unit. Benny has a breakdown breakthrough. Ruthie shows us why she is there, The boys get one more blast of fun. And we get to see a wheeled in Pinkham one more time. Joon always asks, “yes or no?“, “yes or no?“. and for this retelling, I can only answer, “yes…, and no“.

Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse_PHOTO 11
Bryce Pinkham photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

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My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to


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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