The 1990’s are back in a big way, in fashion, in remakes, and now on stage with a new musical version of the indie hit movie BENNY AND JOON, now playing at the Old Globe through October 22nd. This show has things younger generations may have only heard of, like VHS tapes, pagers, and (gasp) a corded land line! What it also has are some beautiful performances by Hannah Ellis and Bryce Pinkham.
Benjamin and Juniper – also known as Benny and Joon are siblings in Spokane, Washington who only have each other left in the world. Benny (Andrew Samonsky) as the older brother is especially protective of his sister Joon ( Hannah Ellis)as he fights to keep her out of a group home, feeling she is best with him. But as he meets a lovely waitress Ruthie (January LaVoy), and Joon bonds with the newcomer Sam (Bryce Pinkham), the siblings find themselves trying to figure out if they can make space for to find love as well.
Hannah Elles as Joon is charming as a young woman who is a schizophrenic (though this is never directly defined in the film so much as strongly hinted at) and trying to cope with a world that can seem unsafe after losing her parents in a car accident, but also go out into the world on her own. She is an artist as well as a passionate defender of grapes (no raisins!). She has a loose and funny style making the character both charming and a bit brittle, that seems like a nice echo to the Mary Stuart Masterson portrayal of her character.
Samonsky, has the most difficult role as Benny, who for most of the show is a straight man to all of the ridiculousness masking as normality around him. He makes this character warm and loving, when it could turn controlling and a bit mean (and does in the second act). But his duet with Elles, “Benny & Joon” is an adorable and catchy song highlighting the siblings love for one another.
Pinkham is a gifted performer and physical comedian and this really shines through with his sweet and soulful Sam. This character can really only express himself with movie quotes and impersonations. His song “In My Head” is one of the more aggressive songs, as it explains his upbringing and why he’s like this is highlighted with a hint of some 90’s rock underneath.
The set has a wide open and cinematic scope, with the model neighborhood shown from an aerial view as the background. It allows the stage to remain clear for set pieces and scene changes, and the lighting design (R. Lee Kennedy) uses this canvas with washes of color, spotlights, and pinlights to great effect. This backgrounds and lighting add to the cinematic feel for the show as well as highlights how out of place Benny and Joon feel from their tidy little community.
The music by Nolan Gasser, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein are lyrical and lovely, but there are only a few that really stand out after the last note. ‘It’s a Shame” is a sweet and funny defense of raisins, that seems to win over everyone in the audience that hears it. Joon’s “Yes or No” was another standout as she tries to make sense of her world and find the courage to expand it into the unknown.
The show keeps all of the silly domestic realism of the film (like cooking grilled cheese sandwiches on an iron) and for the most part keeps up the blithe and sunny charm of the movie. This makes for a problem in the second act though, which can make Benny’s reactions seem more severe than it should. Balancing some of the whimsy with a bit more of the emotionally complex and darker themes that it touches upon, would help not only with this transition but also help ground the show as a whole.
This show is a romantic comedy, but at its heart, it’s a love story about Benny and Joon fighting their separation anxiety to find love, build a bigger family and world around them. Much like the siblings, if the show can be as brave as their characters to dig a little deeper and go a little darker, it will be all the better for it.
BENNY & JOON is playing through October 22nd at The Old Globe. For ticket and showtime information go to http://www.theoldglobe.org