Benny & Joon sing unusual tune

By Eric George Tauber

Eric George Tauber

SAN DIEGO –The typical musical centers around the relationship of two paramours with all other relationships revolving around them. So focusing on a brother and sister with their love interests playing second fiddle is what sets Benny & Joon apart.

Benny is a real mensh. He works hard at the garage and does his best to take care of Joon, his sister with schizophrenia. Benny is more than a big brother. He’s all the family that Joon’s got since they lost their parents in a car crash. “Safety first” is Joon’s obsessive mantra. Benny would like to have a life, but that’s a tall order with a crazy sister who goes through caretakers like the von Trapp kids.

Andrew Samonsky is very likable and relateable as Benny. Hannah Elless is entertainingly smart and funny as Joon, but she seems more quirky than crazy.

January Lavoy is refreshing in her sincerity as Ruthie, the used-to-be actress turned waitress in a small town diner. Her chemistry with Benny is sweet in its awkwardness. Singing with a strong, clear alto, she resonates without showing off.

But the star of this show is Bryce Pinkham, the wacky cousin Sam whom Joon acquires in a poker game. He makes some curious culinary choices, using an iron to make grilled cheese and a clothes-dryer for popcorn. Sam has an encyclopedic knowledge of film, rattling off lines with spot-on impressions for every occasion. Plus, he is a master of physical comedy, recreating the antics of silent screen legends Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

“Did you go to school for that?”

“Actually, I got kicked out of school for that.”

Sam finds normal human interaction painfully awkward. When he sings In My Head, we learn how dark and chaotic his life has been. Hence, his retreat into a safer, scripted world, far from the messy, three-dimensional improvisations of reality.

Composer Nolan Gasser describes his score as “a mix between Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill and Franz Schubert.” There’s a song every few minutes and –with a running time of three hours- could use a few judicious cuts. But don’t cut Benny & Joon’s duet lullaby. It’s been running around in my head for two days.

Dane Laffrey designed the backdrop like a railroad model of the town … for some reason. We later see some Magritte windows, which I think worked better. A railroad model is neat and well-ordered. The mind of a schizophrenic is far more surreal. To be honest, I found the show’s overall treatment of schizophrenia rather superficial. This is a very serious mental illness that is not well understood. The world of the play could have better reflected that.

If you have a belovéd sibling whom you look out for –or by whom you have been looked out for- then you’ll relate to the relationship of Benny & Joon. If you love classics of the silver screen, you’ll adore the wacky antics of Bryce Pinkham. So catch Benny & Joon now playing at the Old Globe through Oct 22 … And then call your siblings.

Tauber is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts. He may be contacted via [email protected]





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