Hannah Elless and Clybourne Elder in “Benny & Joon” at Paper Mill Playhouse. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Ryan Leeds
Every Hollywood movie does not need to be adapted into a stage musical. Recent film-to-flops include A Bronx Tale and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Current proof can be found at Paper Mill Playhouse, where Benny & Joon makes its East Coast Premiere. Based on the 1993 MGM romantic comedy about an unlikely romance and subsequent sibling drama, the material has now been placed into the care of book writer Kirsten Guenther, composer Nolan Gasser, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein. The result: Boring and Jejune.
As the curtain rises, a Buster Keaton-clad Sam (Bryce Pinkham, Conor Ryan at certain performances) hops on a miniature train headed for Spokane, Washington. After a dull opening number between brother Benny (Clybourne Elder) and sister Joon (Hannah Elless), which features the not-so-catchy lyrics, “This, This, This, not this,” I was in the camp of “Not This” and quickly longed for my own train ride back to Manhattan. The remaining two and a half hours did little to change my mind — especially given the fact that this lifeless opening number was reprised two more times. The rest of the score is also forgettable and makes one yearn for lush melodies and a more cohesively constructed show. Sam is eventually passed off to Benny by way of a lost hand in a poker game. A bet we ultimately wish someone else had won.
It’s unfortunate because Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil’s original screenplay bursts with heart and poignancy. Granted, Mary Stuart Masterson’s film performance of a beautiful, creative soul (Joon), coping with schizophrenia is difficult to capture on Paper Mill’s vast stage. In that sense, it closely aligns with Next to Normal, the 2009 Broadway musical which depicted bipolar disorder and depression within a suburban family. That production received 11 Tony Awards and was lauded for its sensitive depiction of mental illness. Years later, it continues to resonate with audiences who have been moved by both the story and the music.
This musical treatment, directed by Jack Cummings III, misfires on all cylinders. Those unfamiliar with the film will most likely be left scratching their heads wondering why there is so little dramatic tension. An even bigger question that looms: What is the point of all this singing when few of the songs move the story forward? Dialogue between Sam and Joon about the sad life of raisins (ripped verbatim from the film) turns into an unfunny number titled, “It’s A Shame.” Trust me, it is.
Later, Benny sings, “One Good Day,” a frustrated ode about his inability to care for his sister and a lament for the siblings’ deceased parents. Its opening night performance was cringe-worthy, making one wonder whether the song was intentionally dissonant or if Elder was simply off key. Either way, it was one bad moment.
Somehow, Elless manages to rise about the material. Avid theatergoers may recall her as a featured actor in the short-lived, but well-intentioned musical Bright Star. Her voice has a lovely warmth and purity not often found on contemporary stages. In spite of what she’s been handed, she proves that she can carry an otherwise weary and wearing show on her shoulders. This is one performer to watch, and it will be quite a treat to follow her trajectory — hopefully towards a bonafide box office hit.
Pinkham’s Sam is also a delight. As the soft-spoken oddball with a heart set on Joon, his comic timing and physical skills are delightful, which he displays with effortless whimsy and flair. Sam loves classic movies and quotes them often. Here, Pinkham’s gift for impersonations shines but the bit runs thin. The rest of the cast is fine, but the roles are superficially written and do little to enhance the story.
Dane Laffrey’s confined rectangular set, which features a permanent bird’s eye view of Spokane, might be symbolic of the small world in Joon’s mind, but it’s visually bland and significantly less impressive than his usually stellar efforts (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening and Once on This Island).
Benny & Joon will need a significant overhaul if the creative team and producers hope to move the show to Broadway. With Tootsie and Beetlejuice rounding out the season and Moulin Rouge! opening this summer, we’ve hopefully reached our adaptation quota, leaving Joon and Sam to live out their days (and ours) at a peaceful distance.
Benny and Joon
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through May 5
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.