(Hannah Elless) & Benny (Claybourne Elder)
By David Schultz
current season (Hell, the last few years actually) is seeing its share of film
to live theater treatments once again. Tootsie, Pretty Woman, Magic Mike
(upcoming fall season), Beetlejuice, are currently in previews or up and
running in New York City. Adding to the list is the newest adaptation of the
1993 film Benny & Joon. But guess what? This improbable musical is a
truly creative and moving adaptation of its original source material. If
anything, this entertaining work expands and embellishes the story further in
unexpected ways. Originally premiering at the Old Globe Theater in 2017, this
reworked musical has landed at the Paper Mill Playhouse with a variety of new
songs, as well as a few major cast changes.
difficult subject matter is laid out at the onset. Benny (Claybourne Elder) is
the caretaker for his sister Joon (Hannah Elless) who suffers from a crippling
mental illness. Her schizophrenia symptoms are controlled by carefully dolling
out her meds. The death of the siblings’ parents years ago in a car crash has
created a dual emotional need for both of them, as they settle in to melancholy
life ahead, with little hope for the future. Joon hears voices and sounds,
reacts intensely to loud noises, and seems on the brink of running away, or
into traffic as she flails about pretending to be a traffic cop directing cars
in the middle of busy intersections.
does have her artistic impulses as well and recreates her inner expression
through her hand painting to work out her unfocused psychic urges.
catalyst to jumpstart the story into motion occurs after a bet during a poker
game and Benny has to bring an odd eccentric bloke named Sam (terrific Bryce
Pinkham) into the household. A gaggle of caretakers have come and gone and
perhaps Sam can potentially connect with Joon and be her caretaker till the
next one comes along. Benny, being the overprotective brother to his sister,
seriously doubts it, but gives it a chance.
is here that the production blossoms out in poetic ways. Sam, who dresses not
unlike the silent film star Buster Keaton, jaunty stove-pipe hat askew on his
head, upends the family unit. Moving with graceful almost balletic physical
ability, he is a virtual cinema mimic to boot, throwing out wisecracking movie
quotes from a plethora of films with wild abandon. Pinkham is brilliant as he
proves to both Joon and the audience as well his openness to the experience of
listening with deep empathy to this wounded woman. They are, as the play
progresses, an odd quirky sort of kindred soul match. He too, it seems is
struck with a sort of madness. Just wait till you see his smooth as silk work
in the kitchen as he prepares a grand meal of grill cheese sandwiches. The
setting of the dining table with plates flying, then caught, then splayed onto
the table is poetry in motion.
caseworker Dr. Cortez (Natalie Toro) attempts to convince Benny that he should put
his increasingly unstable sister in a care facility, but he balks initially.
Down at the local diner lost soul waitress Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler) works the
overnight shift, as she slyly eyes and pines over Benny.
Elder &Tatiana Wechsler
romantic interest pans out in slow incremental ways. The romantic connection
between Sam and Joon also rears its head. Miracle of miracles… this musical
deftly gets under your skin. The main leads are completely believable and the
inter relationship dynamics are spot on. Each of these fractured adults is on the
precipice of change, but frozen in fear of stepping out of their comfort zone.
Elless & Bryce Pinkham photos by Old Globe, Gerry Dahlia and Matthew
difficult challenging subject matter is dealt with in a graceful,
non-condescending way. This is a musical, though it could very well have been
written as a straight play. The music (Nolan Gasser) and lyrics (Mindi
Dickstein) are melodic and amusing with perfectly timed eleven o clock numbers
for each of the leads. There is precious little dancing to be seen in this
production. The seamless scenes that meld together and the visual aspects more
than make up for that lack.
imposing and amusing visual backdrops by designer Dane Laffrey are a wowser. A
skewed perspective perfectly in tune with the storyline shows an immense aerial
view high above the neighborhood, but the audience sees it as if flying high
above the town. Subtle lighting pinpoints where the characters are at any given
moment in the town. Director Jack Cummings III doesn’t shy away from the
darkness by any means. In the Second Act when things turn dire, the storyline
pulls no punches and reveals the pain and suffering that occurs within each
character. Many of the scenes have a hemmed in look and feel with an almost
claustrophobic atmosphere. When all seems lost, the emotions of the characters
rear their heads and clarity is seen, just beyond the horizon. The loose
threads have a way of reconnecting yet again, as these damaged souls are
restored. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and as the musical works
towards its hopeful conclusion, the hemmed in look and feel opens up…. the
entire stage is brilliantly bathed in a beatific blue horizon that bodes well
for all concerned. A rare thing indeed, this film to musical incarnation is
infused with a graceful warmth. Going crazy never looked so good.
through May 5th