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Benny & Joon Musicalizes the Eccentric Characters of a Popular '90s Romance

Claybourne Elder, Hannah Elless, and Bryce Pinkham lead the East Coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse.

Hannah Elless (Joon) and Claybourne Elder (Benny) in Benny & Joon, directed by Jack Cummings III, at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Benny & Joon was a sweet and innocuous movie when it came out in 1993, and it has been turned into a sweet and innocuous musical, now making its East Coast premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse. Following a 2017 world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Benny & Joon returns to the stage with much of the same cast and creative team, who paint a twinkly picture of its title siblings' insular life with only the safest explorations of its darker undertow.

That current largely swirls around Joon (Hannah Elless, singing as beautifully as she did in Broadway's Bright Star), a young woman suffering from mental illness, which the musical specifies as high-functioning schizophrenia (the movie leaves her diagnosis ambiguous). Her elder brother, Benny (Claybourne Elder), has been taking care of her since their parents died, putting his life — romantic and otherwise — on hold while Joon (who spends most of her days painting) terrorizes every "housekeeper" Benny brings in to look after her. Benny's life is burdened, but in a frothy, whimsical way as directed by Jack Cummings III — especially after Sam enters the picture.

Johnny Depp's performance as the Buster Keaton-admiring houseguest whom Joon wins (or loses, rather) in a poker game with Benny's pals was key to the movie's quirky charm in '93. Now in Bryce Pinkham's dexterous hands, Sam remains the primary appeal of Benny & Joon. The narrative's loose screws haven't been tightened much (the story's main tension still disappears into thin air at the end). But that's irrelevant when all you want is another peek at Sam's colorful inner life, dispensed by Pinkham in small but addictively entertaining spurts.

Bryce Pinkham (Sam) and Hannah Elless (Joon) in a scene from Benny & Joon.
(© Jerry Dalia)

The musical attempts to open up Sam's backstory with the song "In My Head" (a nervous breakdown moment for Sam when he thinks he's being kicked out of Benny and Joon's house). But it ends up just blending into the rest of Nolan Gasser's indistinguishable melodies (Mindi Dickstein pens the lyrics) and taking a backseat to Pinkham's delightful bits of clowning (the production's movement coordinator, Lorenzo Pisoni, is a verified circus connoisseur). Pinkham's antics — which range from an impeccable Ray Bolger impression to perilous plate tossing — double as moments of intimacy between Sam and Joon, and it's an utter joy to watch Elless appear so genuinely tickled by her stage partner.

It's when things flip back to traditional musical mode that Benny & Joon loses its eccentric luster (despite designer Dane Laffrey's dependably whimsical set, centered around a toy model of Benny and Joon's neighborhood). Most of those unadorned moments unfortunately fall to Benny and his love interest, Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler), the benevolent actress-turned-waitress who always remembers to keep raisins away from Joon's tapioca and hopes to become part of Benny's "complicated" life. Elder sings the part well (though his big solo number "One Good Day" left my mind the moment it was over), and Wechsler does what she can with her minuscule arc. A bland "will they, won't they" story, however, is a dreary complement to the main event. Kudos to Sam and Joon for being such a hard act to follow.

Benny & Joon runs through May 5 at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Jerry Dalia)
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