BWW Review: BENNY AND JOON, A Breath of Fresh Air for your Musical Senses
The Old Globe has opened a window and let in a beautiful breath of fresh air in its latest world premiere musical, BENNY AND JOON, by bookwriter Kirsten Guenther, composer Nolan Gasser, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein. Based on the 1993 MGM film starring Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn, it focuses on three characters, each insulated by their unique circumstances, and how they ultimately overcome their limitations to live the life they've always wanted. Love, family, compassion, and understanding are the foundation of the piece and, as they grow, so do we.
Joon (Hannah Elles) suffers from a form of mental illness that means she hears voices when she's off her meds. Order is the key to her world and when that order is interrupted, it prompts uncontrollable outbursts, making her a danger to herself and others. Benny (Andrew Samonsky) is the older brother who has taken care of her ever since their parents died in a car accident ten years earlier. A mechanic with plenty of guy friends, but no love life, he dutifully shoulders his responsibility because he loves his sister but he also uses it as a reason not to get close to people. Outside of poker nights with the guys, his world consists of managing interruptions from Joon and little else.
Enter Sam (Bryce Pinkham), the eccentric cousin of one of Benny's poker buddies, and the catalyst who turns everything upside down. Sam's unusual way of navigating through life helps Benny and Joon see that sometimes you have to look at the world a little differently in order to make it all work out. He uses humor and classic movie bits to diffuse tension in others and he does it so spontaneously that it works every time.
The musical's task is accomplished with a fair amount of whimsy and a sensitive hand by the writers and director Jack Cummings III. They establish it from the get-go, with a paper origami bird, a miniature train, and the promise of a journey slightly askew. The beauty of the opening is that you know immediately what kind of musical you're going to see and then it follows through and delivers on what it sets up.
All of the film's best moments are here, several of them staged so sweetly and with such a light touch that they seem to dance, even when there is no musical accompaniment. Some - like Sam's famous dancing roll scene in the diner and his method of cooking grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron - are set quite effectively to instrumental music. Others receive full-on song development and move the story forward at an accelerated clip while expressing the characters' inner dialogue in a way not available to their film counterparts. So many of the songs are winners.
Dickstein's lyrics are rich with insight and Gasser's melodies capture the vastly different rhythms of each character, a complicated task in any musical but in this one it defines the characters on a whole other level. In "Safety First" we see why Joon feels compelled to stand in the middle of a busy intersection and direct traffic even though it makes her look crazy, and in "In My Head" we begin to understand the real reason Sam is obsessed with the movies. The driving rock inflections in the song express the pounding desperation inside Sam's head and the escape that celluloid provided from a cruel world.
The choice to have Joon play the ukulele while singing "Happy" perfectly captures the gentle joy she feels in the moment (is there any friendlier sound than a ukulele?) and in the most unconventional of love songs, "It's a Shame" sung by Joon and Sam, reveals just how perfect for each other these two unusual individuals really are.
On the outside, Joon often seems "normal" and Elless achieves an interesting dichotomy with the character. When she is not completely in control of her surroundings or is showing a softer, more childlike side, Elless still includes Joon's internal durability, just as when she is exercising her strength of will she also retains her fragility. It is a wonderful play on personality that creates a complex character the audience roots for without hesitation. She is delicate, determined, and delightful.
As Sam, Pinkham takes the Johnny Depp role and reinvents the character into one audiences will talk about for years to come. For that reason alone you need to see the show. He sings beautifully, possesses the kind of comic and physical timing that can't be taught, and does everything so effortlessly that you want him to repeat every scene again and again. Whether he's rolling in on skates and pushing a kitchen cabinet or dancing with a mop, defending the rights of Baked Alaska or summoning up the courage to get a job, he is the imaginative link that fuels the show. Pinkham's progression from insecure to confident in a single song ("I Can Help") is a showstopper and his onstage chemistry with Elless is immediate. It is a darling performance, never precious, and so memorable there are sure to be award bells ringing in the future for the actor.
In the category of things that need rethinking: Benny's translation from film to stage doesn't yet work. In the movie, it was always clear that Benny's love for Joon was more important than anything else. Even at his most frustrated point, Aidan Quinn's sincerity allowed the audience to remain sympathetic to him. Here, Benny turns into a phenomenal jerk when the conflict is highest and Samonsky hits the beat so viciously that he isn't able to recover from alienating the audience, even with a song that explains his actions after the fact. Of course the frustrations he lets out in his tirade toward June are legitimate but it's a fine line that still needs to be tuned.
That, coupled with a lack of chemistry between he and Ruthie (January LaVoy) and LaVoy's lackluster performance, makes this couple fizzle out before they even begin. She is the weak vocal link in an otherwise strong vocal ensemble. Without a more believable attraction, this secondary romantic storyline falls flat.
The supporting characters are also trying hard to make as much of their short stage time as possible but some of their performances come off as forced. Scenes with Dr. Cruz (Natalie Toro), in particular, could benefit from significant cutting. Her advice song "There Is No Secret" feels like it is inserted just to give her a solo and that's not a good enough reason. Make the point in short dialogue and move on rather than turning it into a downer orchid sequence that may have looked good on paper but doesn't translate well to the stage. The office scene and song "Wonder" is also too drawn out to hold our interest, and a reprise of the song sung by the doctor is an unnecessary comment.
The crux of the show is the relationship between Benny and Joon and Sam. When the focus stays on them the musical's inherent sweetness blossoms and, when it doesn't, it fades.
Dane Laffrey's primary set piece - a Google Earth-inspired map of Benny and Joon's neighborhood - is a sleek and dramatic way to represent how the orderly appearance of a thing may not tell the whole story. There are times the three dimensional backdrop even resembles a storybook pop-up or a board game with the players all advancing according to the roll of the dice - two steps forward, one step back. A rolling track in the floor allows for the smooth transition of furniture and other items that set the individual scenes. Once you accept the repetitive device, you see how effectively it solves the question of how to cut quickly between many different locations.
R. Lee Kennedy's lighting lends intimacy as it creates the parameters of each space in the absence of actual walls. A breathtaking reveal late in the show takes the visual representation of freedom to a new level. The creative team's thoughtful use of color, order, and function works for the kind of story being told. It should feel unexpected and it does.
Regardless of our circumstances, we're all in search of a happy ending. BENNY AND JOON is a quirky new musical that will make you believe a happy ending is possible no matter what stands in your way. Fresh, inventive, and full of charm, it's a feel-good musical that will warm your heart.
BENNY AND JOON
September 7 - October 22, 2017
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
All photos by Jim Cox