TR Robertson …The world premiere of the musical, “Benny & Joon”, at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, based on the 1993 MGM motion picture written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil, will take audience members into the world of mental illness in a way most have never seen. The musical is from a book by Kirsten Guenther, music by Nolan Gasser and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. The Globe presentation is directed by Jack Cummings III with choreography by Scott Rink.
“Benny & Joon” touches on the relationship between older brother, Benny, and his sister, Joon who is a functioning schizophrenic. Their parents were killed many years ago in a car accident and Benny has lived his life running a garage and caring for Joon. Throughout the musical, we see Joon go through a variety of highs and lows. Underlying all of this is a tender, understanding love Benny has for Joon. But, all of this will be tested as things begin to change around Benny and Joon. A bizarre poker game leads Benny ending up with giving a temporary home to Sam, a cousin of Benny’s friend Mike. Sam is an eccentric, unique individual, played by Johnny Depp in the movie version. He isn’t comfortable in social settings and speaks through a series of old movie quotes, has a Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton appearance and mannerisms and a person that seems to understand and identify with Joon. This will soon develop into something much more, much to Benny’s dislike. Along with this, Benny begins to fall for an ex-actress, now waitress, Ruthie, but he can’t figure out how to fit this relationship into everything else going on around him.
Photos by Jim Cox
Andrew Samonsky plays Benny. Samonsky has appeared on Broadway and recently completed a national tour of “The Bridges of Madison County”. As older brother Benny, he shows a great range of emotions and a powerful singing voice, ranging from tender moments helping calm Joon when she has one of her episodes, to fits of anger when he finds out about the relationship Benny and Joon are developing. Playing sister Joon is Hannah Elless, who has also appeared on and off Broadway and was in the Globe and Broadway musical, “Bright Star”. Elless does a beautiful interpretation of the issues surrounding Joon’s mental illness. At one moment Joon seems as “normal” as the next person, at another moment the least little thing can set her off, such as when Sam cleans up the kitchen and moves some of Joon”s personal possessions. Elless showcases a beautiful voice in the numbers “Safety First”, “Happy” and “Yes or No”.
An audience favorite is Bryce Pinkham, who plays the eccentric Sam. Pinkham is making his Old Globe debut and has performed in numerous Broadway productions. Using a variety of physical comedy, facial expressions, great roller skating skill, memorable quotes from old movies and spot-on timing, Pinkham makes the unusual character of Sam a delight to watch. There were a number of memorable scenes from the musical involving Sam. The café counter fork and roll (or potato) dance, taken from a Charlie Chaplin movie; the grilled cheese dinner scene using an iron and ironing board; the roller skating ballet scene while cleaning the kitchen; and the video store application scene, all had the audience mesmerized. Pinkham presents Sam both as someone who is dealing with his own set of issues and a person capable of great love. His emotional “In My Head” stands out showing his vocal range.
Also standouts in the musical were January LaVoy who plays Benny’s love interest, Ruthie; Colin Hanlon, who plays Sam’s cousin Mike; Paolo Montalban playing garage employee Larry and Jason Sweettooth Williams also playing a garage employee. Hanlon, Montalban and Williams combine with Samonsky in several exuberant numbers, “Playing for Keeps” and “Home Run Kings”. The final member of the cast is Natalie Toro, who plays the caring Dr. Cruz, dealing with both Benny and Joon.
The musical employs a number of clever stage features put together by Dane Laffrey, Scenic and Costume Designer and R. Lee Kennedy, Lighting Designer. Minimal set props are brought (pushed) on stage by the cast members always going stage right to left, a moving ramp occasionally gives the audience the feeling of movement on stage, an intricate background set of Benny and Joon’s hometown and the stark hospital room of one of the final scenes contrasted by the brightness of the closing. There may not be a great deal of lessons to be taken out of the musical, but if there, are many can be summed up by some of the quotes from Sam and his movies. From “Cool Hand Luke”, he figures out he and Joon have, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. As Joon fights for independence and a chance to try and make it on her own she reminds Benny, “All I want is to do one thing I was in control of”. Sometimes we are so concerned about caring for someone and allowing them to do risky things, we justify our actions by calling it protecting them because we love them too much, smothering them. Also the theme of vulnerability comes to mind. Benny does not allow himself to become vulnerable in his relationship with Ruthie while Benny and Joon know they each have a variety of circumstances that are against them, but they take the chance anyway.
“Benny and Joon” will undoubtedly go through changes as it develops and moves on in the theatrical world, but this is a good beginning and a very enjoyable musical. It will be at the
Conrad Prebys theatre Centre of the Old Globe Theatre until October 22. Ticket prices start at $36 and can be purchased at www.TheOldGlobe.org or info@TheOldGlobe.org or call 619-231-6752.