San Diego Theater Review: BENNY & JOON (The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage)

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by Milo Shapiro on September 23, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


It’s tricky turning a movie into a play, given that without the auteur’s camera gimmicks and edits, it can be harder to convey mood and emotion. When adapting to a musical, however, songs can create an indelible emotional connection with a character. Not every tune in the world premiere of Benny & Joon accomplishes that goal, but there are enough that work so well it justifies this adaptation of the same-titled 1993 film written by Leslie McNeil and Barry Berman. What’s more, the characters, plot, and excellent performances alone would easily carry Kirsten Guenther’s book; the score (lyrics by Mindi Dickstein; music by Nolan Gasser) feels almost like a bonus.

Siblings Benny and Joon Pearl (Andrew Samonsky and Hannah Elless) are twenty-somethings whose parents were killed in a car crash years ago. Bright and feisty Joon suffers from schizophrenia, forcing her to accept constant supervision and begrudgingly allow her brother to run her life. Benny, feeling like he is Joon’s only real support, has all but given up having a life of his own because of the constant demands of her obsessive needs and dangerous delusions.

Enter an unexpected house guest named Sam (Bryce Pinkham), whose PTSD from a troubled childhood has led him to dress like silent film start Buster Keaton, and to speak almost exclusively via movie impressions. These three distinct personalities bring out the best and the worst in each other, leading to fury, revelation, and humor.

Unfortunately, a number of the songs feel like they were added just to have enough songs to call it a musical. None of the tunes in the first half of Act I are memorable. Later, other numbers land beautifully, including the title song (a nightly bedtime ritual that Joon and Benny sing to each other), the poignant “Been There, Done That” by Benny’s potential love interest Ruthie (January LaVoy), and the sweet capper to Act I, “Dinner and a Movie,” that echoes in your head through intermission.

All of the performances are enjoyable, with Elless making a strong impression as the disjointed Joon, but it is Pinkham as the Chaplinesque Sam who will hold both your gaze and your heart. His fish-out-of-water looks, surreal launches into mime, awkward mimicry of classic film roles, and soulful singing make him the stand-out in what appears, initially, to be a show about a brother and a sister. Yet Pinkham, Tony-nominated on Broadway in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is never gratuitous or self-serving. Under the fluid direction of Jack Cummings III, Sam’s lines and Pinkham’s choices always support his fellow actors and the story. They just happen to become the most memorable part of the show and, on their own, worth the price of entry within this overall solid adaptation and pleasing production.

For those who have seen the movie, which is heavier and slower, Guenther’s changes succeed in lifting the energy tremendously without hurting the story. And quite frankly, between Pinkham’s talent, Cummings direction, and Scott Rink’s choreography, the Old Globe’s Sam is a far more interesting character than Johnny Depp’s version in the movie, making the interaction of the play’s trio more believable and enjoyable than in the film.

photos by Jim Cox (click images for larger version)

Benny & Joon
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 619.234-5623 or visit The Old Globe

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