Paper Mill Playhouse’s newest musical offering is the heartwarmingly luminescent “Benny and Joon.” In this new musical, which has a book by Kristin Guenther, with music by Nolan Gasser and Mindi Dickstein, we see the love and intestinal fortitude that keeps a family together when part of the family is not quite themselves. People react very differently sometimes to catastrophic events and, whether the mental illness is idiopathic, having no apparent cause, or exploits an existing area that is less strong, this is a family that is tightly knit and forever together. It’s the “how,” not the “why” that is the real story.
Benny (Claybourne Elder) is a young man in his prime. He’s got a business of his own and he maintains a house with his sister, but he never strays from what has become his routine. His sister Joon (Hannah Elless) is artistic, creative, and a double handful. She has a series of “housekeepers,” whom Benny has engaged to assure that she doesn’t wander out to direct traffic–specifically at the intersection, near their house, where their parents were killed in a car accident, several years before. Mrs. Smail (Natalie Toro) is the latest in the long line of women, who run screaming from the house, overwhelmed by Joon’s, well, Joon-ness.
Benny has a great group of guys, with whom he works at the garage that he owns, and they are also his buddies, really, his only friends. Mike (Colin Hanlon) is a rogue, full of mischief and fun. He works at a local hospital and he works hard and plays hard. He and Benny have been friends forever, and it shows. Larry (Paolo Montalban) and Waldo (Jacob Keith Watson) are Benny’s buddies and employees and they are almost like angels on his shoulder, balancing Mike’s realness with their own kinder, gentler advice. Waldo, in particular, is someone who looks burly and has the insides of a teddy bear. When Benny gets called out of the guys’ weekly poker game and Joon sits in for a hand, she loses the hand and wins Mike’s cousin Sam (Bryce Pinkham), who now has to go live with Benny and Joon. And life is a series of moments whose life-changing effects are not immediately felt. And everyone’s lives are about to well and truly change.
Sam has some uniquely Sam qualities–he’s had his own share of hurt and retreated into old films. When Benny takes Joon and Sam to the siblings’ favorite diner, Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler) has their usual orders pegged. She’s a true observer and, in Benny, she likes what she sees. He did her a solid, earlier in the day, for a major car repair, and she’s seen how he interacts with his sometimes challenging sister and she wants to move in a bit closer.
The tangled lives we lead, whom we love, and how we love, are all tackled in two acts. There are some very neat vaudeville bits that Pinkham carries off with the greatest of ease, and that means hours of rehearsal. There is a bit of magic with a grilled cheese dinner so watch for the sandwiches like you would the ball in a shell game. And the classic bits like the “Bread Dance.” à la Charlie Chaplin, will charm you out of your socks. Conor Ryan, who plays Sam in select performances, was the proto bad-boy in Paper Mill’s “My Very Own British Invasion” and it would be interesting to see him in a very different role. Pinkham has an insouciant charm and Sam’s ability to live in the moment is breathtaking, until the consequences of not planning ahead are revealed.
Toro also plays Dr. Cortez, June’s psychiatrist, and Watson does a turn as a punk-inspired video store owner that is pure enjoyment. The show is still developing and you can see it first, as it is surely Broadway bound. Watching the limerance develop between Benny and Ruthie, and Joon and Sam, is part of this show’s gift, and the rare beauty of the penultimate scene with Benny and Joon in Act Two will have you reaching for your hankie. This show requires patience, there’s a lot of exposition that I’m looking forward to seeing tightened up. But that patience is rewarded, as you’ll find out.
Get tickets now– “Benny and Joon” are gone by May 5, so give an early Mother’s Day gift, today at www.papermill.org