"Benny and Joon: The Musical" World Premiere Reminisces and Ravishes
Depp-inspired Musicals and San Diego Stages Go Together Like a Bowl and a Spoon
The 90's were primetime for all things denim, all things pop, and all things Johnny Depp. Considered pin-up perfection, Depp was the loner heartthrob everyone craved to see on the big screen, but once the 21st century hit, his claims to fame became taboo. While he may have been a Hollywood critic's worst nightmare post-Captain Jack, proscenium stages love the guy, picking up not one, but now two, of his beloved 90's flicks as musical fan-faire. It started with "Cry-Baby"; the poppy teen flick originated in 1990 as a cult-favorite movie musical starring Depp, which seventeen years later would debut at our very own La Jolla Playhouse in 2007 followed by a Broadway run in 2008 at the Marquis Theater. To the chagrin of every film critic west of NYC, it has now come full circle, with yet another rendition of Depp's 90's films making its way to a San Diego stage; this time, the world premiere of "Benny & Joon: The Musical" at the historic Old Globe.
Director Jack Cummings III has gifted us with a lovely revival of the 90's, and for those of us who hold a special place in our hearts for Johnny Depp's earlier works, Cummings has provided a lovable, perfectly imperfect tribute to 1993's "Benny & Joon" with this new musical. While perhaps not a prospective Tony winner, it's hard not to love, just like its main characters; Benny, Joon, and Sam. Older brother Benny (Andrew Samonsky) and Joon (Hannah Elless) are siblings, who have lived together in Spokane, Washington their whole lives, in part due to Joon's schizophrenia and frequent break-downs following the death of their parents at a broken traffic light on Sycamore Street. Twenty-four year-old Joon cycles from caretaker to caretaker like its her job, and Benny is just trying to get by as a car mechanic and owner of his very own fish, named Steve. When Joon loses a bet, the sibling duo inherit their friend's eclectic cousin, Sam (Bryce Pinkham), and things get a little poignant, a lot romantic, and all-around wacky.
This wacky atmosphere envelopes the stage, including an artfully designed backdrop featuring a vertical bird's-eye-view layout of the local neighborhood with the remaining wall and floor space painted as blue skies; scenic designer Dane Laffrey keeps things minimal but purposeful. This isn't your average musical with huge numbers, flashy specs, or a whole stage crew designated to remove and replace the set for each scene. "Benny & Joon" has grounded roots in its straight play counterparts (which may have been a better suit for this endeavor), with a small cast of eight responsible for scene transitions. It's a smart-move which maintains the simple town ambience while heightening the show's whimsical nature, and allows the performances to hold the spotlight.
Hannah Elless' Joon is difficult, sensitive, and darling. She holds on to child-like idiosyncrasies, such as 'working' as a traffic director to needing constant affirmations regarding things like peanut butter, the color crimson versus red, and whether or not she is loved. Elless brings life to Joon, whose 1993 motion picture opposite is painfully over-shadowed by Depp's rendering of Sam. In fact, Elless' Joon and Bryce Pinkham's Sam go toe-to-toe, dancing to a tune of their own. Pinkham is captivating as Sam, the film-loving and Buster Keaton protégé; he's bad with words but great with expression, and Pinkham succeeds in making Sam his own— reminiscent of Johnny Depp's portrayal but not a copy-cat rendition, Pinkham's Sam possesses the audience with splendor and allure. Joon and Sam's resulting romance is sweet and impressionable; Sam doesn't scare off easily and is able to enrapture Joon's attention, calming her anxiety-ridden bursts.
This happiness is juxtaposed with the self-inflicted stress that Joon's protective brother Benny is dealing with; all the poor guy wants is to go on a date with the diner dame Ruthie (January LaVoy) but instead gets a dead fish (RIP Steve) and the realization that his sister doesn't need him any longer. Andrew Samonsky oozes tension and maturity as Benny, and it's clear how bottled-up his feelings towards Joon and their situation have become. There's a particularly grievous moment when Benny finally explodes on Joon, and Samonsky's talents come out to play. He is powerful and silencing, and we feel more pity for his character than for Joon; he seems to need more therapy than she does. It's a relatable story of the complicated and resentful nature of family, but also of the "forgive no matter what" mentality that familial love provides. By the time Joon figures out that she needs a life of her own, it's without the help of either man in her life, though they're both there to see it happen.
For all the good this world premiere possesses, the actual musical numbers aren't very memorable, aside from Sam's "I Can Help" at the start of Act II— a truly hurrah! moment which showcases Sam's talents with slap-stick comedy and his longing to please others as he attempts to get a job at the local video store (Spoiler: he's hired). Don't get me wrong, they all have Broadway-worthy voices (LaVoy and Pinkham especially transcend here), but for the most part, the ensemble songs cheapened the genuine nature of the story. Regardless, it's peppy and full of whimsy; a feel-good reminder of a remarkable decade with poignant growing pains.
Fingers-crossed that just like he did with "Cry-Baby," Johnny Depp makes a surprise cameo on-stage once "Benny & Joon" hits Broadway... hell, maybe he'll even make a visit to ye grand Ole' Globe.
"BENNY & JOON: THE MUSICAL"
Music NOLAN GASSER
Lyrics MINDI DICKSTEIN
Book KIRSTEN GUENTHER
Based on the MGM motion picture written by BARRY BERMAN & LESLIE MCNEIL
Director JACK CUMMINGS III
Choreographer SCOTT RINK
Musical Director J. OCONER NAVARRO
"Benny & Joon" runs now - October 22nd