Theater review: Sweet, slight, ‘Benny & Joon’
Benny & Joon
Book by Kirsten Guenther,
Music by Nolan Gasser,
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Based on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil
Through May 5
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
Hannah Elless’ strong, pure, effortless voice and sprightly charm as Joon in Paper Mill’s “Benny & Joon” is one of the best things about this sweet, if predictable, musical. “Benny & Joon” is making its East Coast premiere through May 5.
In fact, there are a lot of things that are fun about this show.
There just isn’t much that is memorable.
How much you enjoy it will depend on your appreciation of whimsy. Sam, played by Bryce Pinkham, speaks in movie impressions which he follows by speaking the name of the movie and year in a subdued little voice. He juggles plates and makes grilled cheese sandwiches on an ironing board, using balletic flourishes that are both humble and proud at the same time.
Dane Laffrey’s set design, which features a drop that is an aerial view of the town, with houses and places that light up to show where we are, is also first-rate.
The musical is based on the 1993 movie “Benny & Joon,” starring Johnny Depp as Sam, and Mary Stuart Masterson as June, the mentally ill young woman guarded by her brother Benny, played by Aidan Quinn. Claybourne Elder plays Benny on stage.
Benny and Joon’s parents died in a car accident when they were young.
Joon is a high-functioning schizophrenic. She loves to paint, and has some ideas that truly seem more eccentric than crazy, including the observation “Jesus is a zombie,” now so common it trended on Twitter on Easter Sunday.
But occasionally she melts down: early on Benny has to stop her from directing traffic wearing a snorkel, using ping pong paddles.
Enter Sam, a goofy young man as strange and damaged as she is. He becomes her new caretaker after Joon “wins” him in a poker game where people bet favors.
Sam understands Joon: when she starts to become upset over whether or not she’ll get a straw at a diner, he calms her down by doing the dancing potatoes routine (here with rolls) from Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”
There’s a subplot with Benny and a diner waitress, Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler, who shines in a lovely solo); a ticking clock about a doctor and a group home (played with compassion by Natalie Toro), also the same doctor suggests Joon could live independently. It’s hard to get a handle on how sick Joon is.
Predictably, too, Joon goes off her meds. It’s unclear why; we never hear about side effects. Predictably, there’s a crisis. Predictably, it’s not too tragic.
Pinkham, who looks a bit like Rufus Sewell, conveys vulnerability and love when not “on,” and his impressions are hilarious. Elless’ June is bright and kind. And there’s her truly gorgeous voice.
Gasser’s music soothes rather than cloys, particularly in Joon’s jaunty “Happy,” and Sam’s troubled “In My Head,” which musically turns raucous when Sam remembers real things.
The four main characters are supported by a nimble cast. Jacob Keith Watson, of Maplewood, stands out as a mechanic who quotes Shakespeare, and as a Mohawk-wearing, grumpy-turned-hopeful video store owner.
Director Jack Cummings III nicely juxtaposes pathos (in one scene where sniffles could be heard) and comedy.
“Benny & Joon” is the very the definition of a feel-good musical: it wants you to feel good about family, about love, about possibility.
That deserves (predictably) applause.