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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Benny & Joon
Look I probably should have told you this before, but you see... Well... Insanity runs in my family... It practically gallops. — Sam (imitating Cary Grant)

Bryce Pinkham and Hannah Elless
Here is a new musical that tries very hard to not be as high functioning schizophrenic as is the 26-year old Joon of the title — the same Joon as in the quirky 1993 film of the same name that starred Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson. Joon has been in the loving care of her older brother Benny since the tragic death of their parents.

But this is Joon's off-beat romance with the sweet if also conditionally illiterate Sam, a survivor of childhood abuse. Sam hides his trauma as a young adult behind a facade of pretense. That's as the reincarnation of silent screen star Buster Keaton.

The plot in this low-key musical has in its favor the off-beat charms of its character and that the film has acquired a cult following. What expressly loopy film doesn't?

Does this musical version work better with songs? Questionable. As with the film, the charm factor is deployed for its maximum worth. It is generally enhanced by a melodic, complementary enough score by Nolan Gasser (music), and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics.)

Except for a few minor additions and alternations, the book by Kirsten Guenther is respectful of its source. Audiences unfamiliar with the film will need time to adjust to the collaborators' deliberately soft-peddle approach to the material. Thanks to a delightfully quirky performance by Bryce Pinkham, the musical achieves most of its goal as an affecting oddity.

Pinkham is endearing from the get-go as the emotionally scarred Sam whose entire personality has been enhanced by impersonating famous film-stars and by using, only when provoked, mostly familiar quotes from famous films to express his feelings. He also mimes, dances, juggles and tumbles for well earned laughs.

It does take a while, but Pinkham is able to win the affection of the audience by mostly underplaying Sam's literally nutty behavior. Joon's behavioral oddities are addressed craftily by the disarming Hannah Ellis. Joon desperately wants to live a life of her own and to not be over protected by her overbearing brother. Her at-the-ready go-tos in difficult situations are appropriate quotes from Shakespeare.

Benny is played with sincerity and a notable warmth by Claybourn Elder in a role that gives a practical anchor to the more whimsical antics of Joon and Sam. The romance between Joon and Sam is set in motion when Joon gets to take Sam home after she loses a hand in poker playing with Benny's buddies. Don't ask.

There is no time in Benny's life for romance although it isn't that Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler) the attractive waitress in the coffee shop they frequent isn't eager to give it a try. For those who recall or love the film, director Jack Cummings III has not pushed the tempo of the musical beyond largo. To his credit, the use of action miniatures and an array of imaginative visuals are a constant treat. The scene in which Joon decides to go into the middle of the town's intersection to direct traffic is cleverly staged.

Set designer Dane Laffrey's bird's eye view of the town is used as a backdrop and smartly incorporated throughout the action. Special effects are a major plus as is the swinging on a rope by Sam as he attempts to reach Joon through the window of her hospital room.

The always affable score adds appreciably to the romance set in motion by the needs of two scarred and scared people. Standout is the lushly melodic ballad "You Meet a Man" as sung by Ruthie has standard written all over it...if there is such a thing these days. The choreography by Scott Rink also supports the purposeful pretentions of this tender-hearted musical — one that is content to simply glow without any resort to razzle-dazzle.

Musical Numbers
Act One
    1. Prologue: Arrival in Spokane -- instrumental
    2. This, This, This -- Joon, Benny, Mrs. Smail, Larry, Waldo, Mike
    3. Saving A Life -- Joon
    4. Playing for Keeps -- Larry, Mike, Waldo, Joon, Benny
    5. Sam's Bread Dance -- instrumental
    6. This, This, This (reprise) -- Benny
    7. Happy -- Joon
    8. In My Head -- Sam
    9. Grilled Cheese Ballet -- instrumental
    10. Benny and Joon - Joon, Benny
    11. It's A Shame -- Joon, Sam
    12. Dinner and A Movie -- Benny, Ruthie, Sam, Joon
Act Two
    13. Entre'Acte: A Windy Street -- instrumental
    14. I Can Help -- Sam, Video Store Owner
    15. Wonder -- Joon, Benny, Dr. Cortez
    16. It's A Shame (reprise) -- Sam, Joon
    17. You Meet a Man -- Ruthie
    18. At the Park -- instrumental
    19. One Good Day -- Benny
    20. Yes or No -- Joon
    21. Man of the Movies -- Sam, Mike, Larry, Waldo, Ruthie, Dr. Cortez
    22. Benny and Joon (reprise) -- Benny, Joon
    23. Finale: This -- Company

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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
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Choreography by Scott Rink
Cast: Claybourne Elder (Benny), Hannah Elless (Joon), Colin Hanlon (Mike), Paolo Montalban (Larry), Bryce Pinkham (Sam), Natalie Toro (Dr. Cortez/Mrs. Small), Jacob Keith Watson (Waldo/Video Store Owner), Tatiana Wechsler (Ruthie)
Scenic & Costume Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design: Kai Harada:
Flying: Foy
Movement Coordinator: Lorenzo Pisoni
Production Stage Manager: Victoria Navarro
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Music Director: J. Oconor Navarro
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J.
From 04/04/19 Opened 04/14/19 Ends 05/05/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/24/19

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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