Paper Mill Playhouse Presents Star Showcase for Bryce Pinkham in East Coast Premiere of Benny & Joon, Adapted from the Film Starring Johnny Depp
By: Ellis Nassour
Monday, April 15: Benny & Joon is the highly-emotional story of a young high-functioning female schizophrenic who dreams of being normal, independent; her obsessively worrying brother, who cares for her after the deaths of their parents; and a mysterious stranger who upends their already upended lives. Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, NJ) is presenting the East Coast premiere, through May 5. Kirsten Guenther (Richard Rodgers Grant; upcoming Roman Holiday), has give the stage adaptation fuller-developed characters than were in 1993 romantic comedy [starring Johnny Deep], which touched audiences and became a cult favorite. The score has music by Nolan Gasser (the opera The Secret Garden) and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein (2005 Little Women).
Some six years in the making, the musical adaptation premiered in 2017 at San Diego’s Old, directed by our very own Jack Cummings III (artistic director, Transport Company). It was a star showcase for the amazing talents of Tony-nominee Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), who is back to portrays Sam, the dysfunctional, but endearing movie-obsessed stranger. Cummings returns as director, along with members of the Globe production that include co-star Hanna Ellness (Paper Mill’s The Other Josh Cohen; 2016’s Best Musical nominee Bright Star).
Benny & Joon opens with Pinkham’s winsome but eccentric Sam arriving in Spokane decked out in the style of Buster Keaton (and later channeling Chaplin and Harold Lloyd antics), searching a side-ways drone schematic to find his way to a cousin’s home. He’s not only a mime but also a sad clown hiding the secrets of how he was abused, detailed in the poignant “In My Head.” When conversing, he does so in sound bites of dialogue from some 15 classic films – E.T., Lust for Life, Animal Crackers, Cool Hand Luke and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Godfather — along with vocal impersonations.
Joon (Elless) wins Sam in a poker game and he soon becomes not only a house guest but also a reliable housekeeper who not likely will be added to the list of those who’ve quit due to Joon’s caustic and violent mood swings. Sam’s not appreciated as much by brother Benny, portrayed by the newbie to the cast, Claybourne Elder (Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde), who sees him as an interloper. There’s great love between the siblings. They even do a nightly ritual that dates back to childhood (“Benny and Joon”). When she’s on her meds, she’s caring, sweet, and artistic (even painting large, colorful canvases) – even concerned with traffic safety (“Saving a Life”); and, when she’s not, Joon has violent tantrums. She sings of being normal, independent, of what her life could be like (“Happy”). Benny worries she could never function on her own. Sam provides an understanding, soothing presence; and Joon’s thrilled to be around someone who treats her as an adult. Needless to say, Sam’s soon more than a housekeeper.
Tensions rise as Benny reluctantly considers a group home for Joon, to prepare her for the time when he’s not there to watch over her and to allow him a life, even maybe to fall in love — with a former indie film actress, who’s come home to roost (Tatiana Wechsler), and, as a friend of Joon, often caught in the middle. Joon and Sam plot to run away. They’ll find happiness, with her selling her canvases, and him working as a video store clerk. Act One ends with things looking more hopeful as Sam prepares dinner in the oven – a gigantic popcorn feast (“Dinner and a Movie”).
With Guenther having given the characters much more depth than they have in the film and exposition done with, Act Two moves along at a fast clip. Sam is convincing when applies for a job in a video store (“I Can Help”). Soon, everyone’s on Cloud Nine in “Wonder” – singing does this happiness have to end. Yes, it does. Benny is falling in love, but walks away because his life is too complicated. Then, it’s the group home again. Though he’s filled with guilt at the thought of suffocating life out of Joon in a regimented home, he goes ballistic and hurtful when he discovers Joon and Sam’s plan. He kicks Sam out; Joon kicks him out. When Sam reenters, Joon reveals she’s been off her meds and describes how her mind plays tricks and she can’t always tell what’s real. They hatch a plan to save the world (“It’s a Shame”), however, off her meds, Joon’s fragile and falls off the deep end. The stars align (“Yes or No”) as Benny realizes Sam will be there for Joon. He can support their dream, and, perhaps, realize one of his own.
Out west, Benny & Joon played on the Globe’s intimate 580-seat Shiley Stage. Here, in the Paper Mill’s 1,200-seater, even with the further work that’s gone into it, doesn’t exactly leap to the stage. The Paper Mill’s wide, deep stage is the envy of many a Broadway house, but it doesn’t offer intimacy when intimacy is ideal. The musical is filled with whimsical and sentimental moments (musical and otherwise), including bits of small magic. Some get lost on the mammoth stage. What a shame Tony-nominated designer Lane Laffrey (Once on This Island revival) wasn’t allowed to create a design that could rein in the set width. The one-time you really appreciate the expanse is in a finale sequence with born scene-stealer Pinkham, once again amazing as he channels the daredevilry Lloyd made famous.
Conor Ryan from the Paper Mill’s recent My Very Own British Invasion premiere plays Sam at certain performances. This was fortuitous because the week prior to the opening, Pinkham was absent due to a family emergency. He returned to the role, without missing a beat, certainly due to the fact he premiered the role in San Diego.
Additional cast are Colin Hanlon (TV’s Modern Family; In Transit; Falsettos), Paolo Montalban (Breakfast at Tiffany’s; 1996 King and I; and Paper Mill’s 2005 Cinderella and 2002 The King and I), Natalie Toro (Les Miz), hilarious Jacob Keith Watson (recent Carousel and Hello, Dolly revivals),and Belinda Allyn (Maria, Paper Mill’s 2016 West Side Story).
Benny & Joon is supported by season sponsor Investors Bank.
Tickets for the show are $32-$112 and available at Paper Mill’s box office (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn) or online at www.papermill.org. Groups of 10 or more may receive up to a 40% discount on tickets by calling (973) 315-1680. Students may order $23-$28 rush tickets over the phone or in person at the box office on the day of the performance.
Production photos by Matthew Murphy, Jerry Dalia, and Jim Fox (Old Globe, SanDiego)