Let Love In: Benny & Joon’s (& Sam’s) Big-Hearted East Coast Premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Bryce Pinkham as Sam; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Millburn, New Jersey —

Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Sam!
Sam who?
Sam person who knocked on the door last time!

Listen up: if Sam comes knocking, let him in!

(Above: Benny & Joon: Hannah Elless as Joon and Bryce Pinkham as Sam; photo by Jim Fox, 2017, courtesy of The Old Globe.)

Here on Sunday night, Paper Mill Playhouse hosted a big-hearted opening night of the Benny & Joon musical in its East Coast premiere. If you missed my photo recap, start here!

The delightful production—inspired by the 1993 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer romantic comedy—presented new ideas about love and family, building on age-old idioms such as love finds a way, home’s where the heart is, and family’s what you make of it.

The bold, balanced creative team added depth to the original tale about a high-functioning schizophrenic, her protective brother, and the local oddball (made famous by Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, and Johnny Depp, respectively), while stagecraft and direction sought to streamline and illuminate. In a medium like musical theater that often relies on broad strokes, the intimate, concise cast built on the same elegantly-understated success as its 2017 world premiere at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

The decade: the 1990s. The place: Spokane, Washington. The story follows twenty-something siblings Benny (Claybourne Elder) and Joon (Hannah Elless), the latter who needs 24-7 supervision by the former because of mental illness. While she stays home and does art therapy (and burns through a rolodex of caretakers), auto mechanic Benny works at his garage manned with his childhood friends. Life gets upended during a poker game when one of Benny’s friend’s quirky relatives is wagered. Enter Sam (Bryce Pinkham) to challenge the flexibility and resistance of all who come into his orbit.

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; l-r: Paolo Montalban as Larry, Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo, Colin Hanlon as Mike, Bryce Pinkham as Sam, Tatiana Wechsler as Ruthie, and Natalie Toro as Dr. Cortez; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

In the original film, Sam’s currency (via Depp) was nuance and gesture inspired by the great masters of silent film. So how does it translate into a medium known for its largesse of musical spirit? Here, deftly, by director Jack Cummings III’s stagecraft: unfussy, unaffected, naturalistic and pared-down into smart, modern language. Atmosphere took similar cues via R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design underpinned by warm pure bright floods to transition scenes and moods.

The creative team drove the story forward with grace and respect. An even-handed book by Kirsten Guenther included the film’s most iconic moments such as Sam’s grilled cheese wizardry with an iron, and Charlie Chaplin’s roll dance from “The Gold Rush”.

Humor was disarming—happiness transmuted to tears—reflecting the manic highs and lows of mental illness, such as the auditory hallucinations that beset Joon when she skipped her daily meds. Multifaceted lyrics by Mindi Dickstein drove the story forward with some introspective pauses.

If you were anticipating a 90s-inspired alternative/grunge soundtrack, look elsewhere. Music by Nolan Gasser bent towards orchestral with lots of bright woodwinds, resonant cello, and baseline piano mixed with synthesizer led by musical director J. Oconer Navarro, and sound design by Kai Harada with orchestrations by Michael Starobin.

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Bryce Pinkham as Sam and Hannah Elless as Joon; photo by Jerry Dalia.)

Scenic and costume design by Dane Lafferty tapped Pacific Northwest proletarian chic: guys in boot cut jeans, boiler suits, flannel shirts and short-sleeve button-downs, and women in an assortment of cardigans, loose floral dresses and brogues with ankle socks.

A whimsical backdrop—a 3D miniature model of the suburban neighborhood—lit-up each location. Efficient, effective props on casters suggested location: the siblings’ home’s kitchen counter, the diner’s banquette, and the auto shop’s workbenches.

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Claybourne Elder as Benny; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

The lead trio mastered the demanding, grueling roles, starting with Elder’s Benny as Joon’s protective overseer. Elder handled a broad range of emotion in generous, accessible language with little ambiguity, a wholesome and good brother despite his occasional blow-ups. His standout Act II “One Good Day” solo showed-off his flexible vocal range and highlighted his natural charisma and presence. The sibling chemistry with Joon was convincing, reinforced by their sweet bedtime lullaby, “Benny and Joon.”

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Hannah Elless as Joon and Claybourne Elder as Benny; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.)

Elless reprised the role of Joon from its Old Globe world premiere with great honesty and clarity, breaking-down the stereotypes of mental illness. She tapped into the extremes that exemplified her character, from bubbly, buoyant, and bright to haunted, dangerous and manic. Her Act I “Happy” solo highlighted her sweet pleasant versatile soprano while her Act II “Yes or No?” demonstrated deeper pathos. She made a convincing transformation from a sheltered, emotionally unstable girl after finding love and independence.

There’s something about Sam.

Also reprising the role that he world-premiered at Old Globe, Pinkham’s Sam was a kinetic force of physical comedy, mastering mime, improve, juggling, and even roller skates, thanks to excellent stage language with choreography by Scott Rink, flying skills by Foy, and movement coordination by Lorenoz Pisoni.

(Above: Benny & Joon; Bryce Pinkahm as Sam; photo by Jim Fox, 2017, courtesy of The Old Globe.)

Like Depp, Sam masks his deepest traumas through charm, whimsy, and wit by channeling a melange of silent film-era icons such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplain, replete in a three-piece suit with a pocket watch, a bowler, and a bamboo cane. When tongue-tied, he lapses into the compelling personas of film, improvising scenes by Hollywood icons such as De Niro, Bogart, Grant, and Stewart to perfection. Cummings amplified the ‘man without a country’ archetype via Sam’s ubiquitous luggage, which drove his arc literally home for a satisfying resolution.

Pinkham was a compelling onstage force with an ethereal, evanescent manner that mixed innocence and quirk. His show-stopping Act I “In my Head” solo showed-off a versatile tenor range and showman’s spotlight command.

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; Claybourne Elder as Benny and Tatiana Wechsler as Ruthie; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.)

Benny’s love interest, Ruthie—played by Tatiana Wechsler as a local waitress with a failed Hollywood past—brought solidity to the cast as the grounded optimist who struck the right balance between shy and outgoing. She was naturalistic and charming onstage, and as a multicultural talent, she brought a refreshing modern update through an interracial coupling with Benny. Her light soprano in the sweet Act I “Dinner and a Movie” duet with him evolved into lovely deep lyric color in her Act II “You Meet a Man” solo.

(Above: Benny & Joon at Paper Mill Playhouse; l-r: Hannah Elless as Joon, Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo, Claybourne Elder as Benny, Paolo Montalban as Larry, and Colin Hanlon as Mike; photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.)

The intimate cast was rounded-out by Benny’s good-natured, diverse childhood friends such as Colin Hanlon as Mike—Sam’s cousin—who flexed his comedy muscle during a slow-motion softball interlude. Paolo Montalban as Larry was another bright light, while Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo/Video Store Owner added sparkling comic relief.

In black leggings and heels, suburban glam was via Natalie Toro as Dr. Cortez (and briefly Mrs. Smail), Joon’s therapist who pressures Benny to offload his sister to a group home. Toro’s lovely, crystalline, warm soprano in Act II’s trio, “Wonder,” made us wish she’d had a solo!

In a medium such as musical theater where everything’s often painted in broad strokes, Benny & Joon’s a refreshing reminder that less is more.

Presented by special arrangement with Larry Hirschhorn, Benny & Joon runs through May 5, and marks the fourth (and penultimate) production of Paper Mill’s current 2018-19 80th anniversary season. Belinda Allyn is the standby for Joon, Ruthie, Dr. Cortez/Mrs. Smail, and Conor Ryan is Sam at certain performances. The Tony Award-winning regional theater in Millburn, New Jersey is under the producing artistic direction of Mark S. Hoebee and managing direction of Mike Stotts.

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