“Benny & Joon” is sweet, funny, and romantic

A scene from
A scene from "Benny & Joon," a musical based on the 1993 film, is at Paper Mill Playhouse.

Paper Mill Playhouse spring production is enchanting

Benny & Joon, a musical based on the 1993 film, is being given its East Coast premiere by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Like the film, Benny & Joon is a sweet romantic comedy about two misfits who find they fit. It also explores the 15 year relationship of a brother taking responsibility for his mentally ill younger sister. It does not go into any depth about the realities of living daily with the effects of mental illness, but it doesn’t pretend to do so. This gentle show instead offers inventive musical staging and cleverly-worded songs, making for a pleasant evening’s entertainment.

A scene from "Benny & Joon, at Paper Mill Playhouse.
A scene from “Benny & Joon, at Paper Mill Playhouse.

It’s the early 1990’s in Spokane, Washington. Benjamin Pearl (Claybourne Elder) runs an auto repair shop while also taking care of his sister Juniper (Hanah Elless), called Joon, an artist with an unspecified mental illness. The responsibilities of caring for Joon have blocked Benny from having much of a social life save with co-workers Mike (Colin Hanlon), Larry (Paolo Montalban), and Waldo (Jacob Keith Watson). One night, Joon loses a bet to Mike and is given the task of taking care of Mike’s eccentric cousin Sam (Bryce Pinkham) while he’s visiting. Sam, with the look and mannerisms of a young Buster Keaton, frequently uses lines of movie dialogue to communicate. Sam and Joon form a friendship and encourage Benny to date Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler), a waitress in a local diner. The show traces the course of three relationships — Sam and Joon, Benny and Ruthie, and Benny and Joon.

Bryce Pinkham as Sam walks away with the show

Director Jack Cummings III keeps the general tenor of the show light, even when disagreements and arguments arise between characters. Scott Rink’s choreography is imaginative and clever, especially in the show’s prologue “Arrival in Spokane”, the “Grilled Cheese Ballet” where Sam prepares dinner, and “At the Park”, a softball game played hilariously in slow motion. Among the fine numbers provided by composer Nolan Gasser and lyricist Mindi Dickstein are Ruthie’s torch song “You Meet a Man”; “Yes or No”, where Joon figures out her relationship with Sam; the daffy “I Can Help”, Sam’s job interview; the show’s opening number, “This, This, This”; and the title song, the siblings’ ritual good night duet.

A scene from "Benny & Joon, at Paper Mill Playhouse.
A scene from “Benny & Joon, at Paper Mill Playhouse.

The immensely gifted Bryce Pinkham as Sam walks away with the show. His mastery of physical comedic ballet brings to mind the great comics of silent films. His self-effacing manner is appealing, and his scenes with Hannah Elless’ Joon are off-beat and funny. Tatiana Wechsler gives emotional weight to the show as Ruthie, displaying a powerful voice. Natalie Toro’s Dr. Torres, therapist to Joon and Benny, gives a nuanced performance as an analyst who is no longer right for either of the siblings. Jacob Keith Watson is a joy to watch as Waldo and the punkish owner of the video store where Sam seeks work. Unfortunately, Claybourne Elder has a thankless task as Benny: his emotions bottled up, his self-imposed adult responsibility for Joon dictating the course of his life, his self-defined role as straight man. The rest of the characters easily make connections with the audience that Benny seemingly cannot, and it weakens the show.

Dane Laffrey’s scenic design makes good use of the width of the Paper Mill’s stage. An interesting touch is the back wall, which is a 3-D aerial view of the neighborhood, although more could have been done with it. The costumes, also designed by Mr. Laffrey, are spot on. The program book lists a credit for “Flying by Foy”; I will not say more about this for fear of spoiling the surprise.

Benny & Joon is not a big splashy musical of the kind that Paper Mill Playhouse is famous for presenting. But it has a quiet enchantment that will appeal to many. You will not waste your time spending a couple of hours getting to know the Pearl siblings, Benny & Joon.

Benny & Joon is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 5, 2019. For tickets and information, visit papermill.org.