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

Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse_PHOTO 6
Bryce Pinkham as Sam in Benny & Joon. Photo by Jim Cox (2017) courtesy of The Old Globe.

The Review: Paper Mill Playhouse’s Benny & Joon

By Ross

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.

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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.

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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.

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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“.

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