Thursday, September 28, 2017

Globe’s New Musical “Benny & Joon”: A Crowd Pleaser

Everything and nothing is normal at Benny and Joon’s house in Spokane, Washington. Their mother and father died in a car crash when they were both quite young leaving Benny to care for Joon. As a caregiver he goes out of his way to see to her every need, and then some.

Joon was diagnosed with having schizophrenia at a young age so bringing her up and caring for her has always been slippery slope for Benny. But life goes on for them and as adults they have now fallen into a routine that appears to work, except when it doesn’t.

Under no circumstances however will he allow Joon to be put into a group home where Dr. Cruz, (Natalie Toro) her Dr. knows she will be cared for. Not so, thinks Benny. 

Benny owns and runs a car repair garage, does the food shopping and makes sure Joon has supervision in her daily life by caregivers that do most of the housework and cooking and just keep an eye out for his sister’s safety.

Hannah Elless
Joon paints, gardens makes her own smoothies for breakfast, seems able to take care of her daily needs, except when she off a bit and begins to have meltdown around some sounds or whatever it is that particular moment that causes her to go off track.  Not taking her meds might be the first cause. “(Safety First”)

She has an uncanny need to make sure most of the caregiver’s, Mrs. Smail (Natalie Toro) for instance, don’t stay around for long, that is until Sam comes into the picture.

Benny's friends and co-workers, Waldo (Jason Sweet Tooth Williams), Mike (Colin Hanlon) and Larry (Paolo Montalban) come and go between car shop scenes and poka games. All three are in excellent voice. (”Home Run Kings”). They have a bond that goes beyond just friendship. They support Benny in his role as caregiver and understand that when the phone rings at work and it’s Joon she gets first dibs for his attention.

Andrew Samonsky and January LaVoy
His pals have not given up on him either and continue to encourage him to step out of his caregiving role once in a while and go on a real grown up date with say the local waitress, Ruthie (a very patient and sweet voiced January LaVoy. “Been There Done That”). She certainly has eyes for him. (“Take A Step Benny”)

The four also play poker at Waldo’s house once a week. They wager the strangest things rather than money like a stethoscope, Captain and Tennille album, Cabbage Patch Kid, a box of chalk, you get the picture.

On this one card playing night Sam, Mike’s cousin’s name was thrown into the pot as one of the take home prizes.  On this particular night, Joon sat in for Benny who was called away from the table. Skepticism set in, but she wriggled her way in anyway.

As it was to be she wins Sam for losing the game, ergo he’s sent home with the pair thinking it’s temporary.  (He’s a little weird, sure, but he’s fine. Our place isn’t just isn’t big enough.”)

This original musical by Kirstin Guenther (book), Nolan Gasser (music) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) and deftly directed by Jack Cummings III now up and running on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage of The Old Globe through Oct. 22nd adds another layer to an already captivating love tale of the one that almost got away.

Propelled with Gasser’s eclectic choices of music that include ‘lyrical songs from his childhood, vaudeville and silent movie musicals, 1990’s grunge rock, gospel tinged, film noir, R&B and Tin Pan Alley’, it follows closely the 90’s cult film of the same name that stars none other than a very young Johnny Depp.

There are about 25 songs, some more effective than others. Some could be cut and no one the wiser. The show is almost three hours long and cutting some would shorten the production overall and that’s not a bad thing.

The story has a charming flair to it especially when Sam, (Bryce Pinkham) the delicately balanced on again, off again eccentric stranger moves in with Benny and Joon.  
Bryce Pinkham
His character is a cross between Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Sam lives inside the minds and worlds of the old silent movies greats of that era and Pinkham (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway) is a natural as Sam the retro man, even imitating characters from Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” to James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  And he sings!

He understands Joon (Hannah Elless) in a quiet and reverential way never imposing on her, just following her ways and being there. They eat out at the local diner where they lament about the raisins.  She in turn becomes relaxed with him never thinking of sending him away.

Benny (Andrew Samonsky) has enough on his plate to deal with Joon, so when Sam exhibits some quirky behavior like moping the floors on roller skates and making grilled cheese sandwiches with a steam iron rather than in a skillet, he’s a bit skeptical but doesn’t want to upset the apple cart.  
Hannah Elless and Bryce pinkham
Joon seems to relish the idea and like Sam she acts as if - doesn’t everyone use a steam iron to grill chees sandwiches? (“Grilled Cheese Ballet” and “Sam’s Bread Dance”).

Hannah Elless (“Bright Star”) has just the right mix of calm, anxiety, stubbornness and charm to be able to pull off the Joon character with all the credibility needed. Her innocence shines through when she’s not challenging her brother or when she’s goggle- eyed looking at Sam. There’s definitely a connection, and why not?

Samonsky’s Ben has the most difficult to wrap your arms around. One can admire him for wanting to protect his sister, and for that matter, his familiar routine that is his anchor. (“Benny & Joon”).

On the other hand, one might want to smack some sense into him for not seeing beyond his nose and letting Joon travel her own journey. And if that’s the emotional pull toward his character, Samonsky plays it all too well. 

Pinkham’s name might not be in the title of the show, but make no mistake Sam is the engine that drives this story. His wide eyes and thoroughly engaging looks had the same effect on yours truly as they did on Joon. It’s like a magnet. “In My Head” is one of the necessary tunes explaining the who and the why of this offbeat character.
Jason Sweet Tooth Williams and Bryce Pinkham
Watching him trying to apply for a job is one of the heartbreaking scene in both movie and current musical. It will give you shivers as he tries to explain to the shop owner why he’s there.

The set is the very first thing we see when the curtains go up is an aerial view of Benny and Joon’s neighborhood with backlighting by R. Lee Kennedy. The creativity of the set lures you into the Benny, Joon, Sam’s world. Seriously, you want to be there to see how this all plays out. Credit Dane Laffrey for sets and also costumes.

The most you will remember about the costumes is Sam’s look as a cross between Chaplin (yes he carries a slim cane) Lloyd and Keaton. It’s a classic look, vest, tie and crushed and worn hat, right out of Vaudeville centrtal casting.  Credit choreographer Scott Rink for the Chaplinesque saunter.

Eight musicians in the pit under J. Oconer Navarro musical direction and orchestrations by Michael Starobin are top -notch sounding. (Kai Harada)

“Benny & Joon” isn’t quite ready for a Broadway run, but will be with a few tweaks and a few nips here and there. It has a winning glow about it and who doesn’t like a simple yet complicated romantic comedy that looks to have happy ending in spite of Joon’s illness and Sam’s off kilter ways. It can and does happen. 

You’ll kick yourself if you miss it here and notice it made it to Broadway.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 22nd
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Musical
Where: Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way.
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage

Photo: Jim Cox


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