Even the best garnishes can’t save a badly-baked treat. Thus is the case of Benny and Joon, the latest movie-to-musical adaptation to take the stage. This pleasantly pleasing but unfulfilling creation playing at Paper Mill Playhouse is elevated with by a talented cast, but even the most sincere and enthusiastic performers can’t transform a mediocre show into a satisfying production.
Based on the 1993 romantic comedy starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Johnny Depp, Benny and Joon narrates the unlikely romance between two endearingly unusual partners. The titular pair are brother and sister who lost their parents at a young age. The only family each other has Benny fiercely protects Joon from the outside world while Joon, a functioning schizophrenic, struggles within his confines. Into their tightly-wound world comes Sam, the cousin of Benny’s coworker whom Joon wins in a poker game. A reticent oddball, the soft-spoken Sam hides from the world behind movies, quoting and mimicking scenes every moment possible. Dressed like Buster Keaton in a bowler hat and bow tie, he protects himself with make-believe. Sam and Joon find each other kindred spirits and a romance quickly blossoms.
There’s plenty of emotion to draw from, but the score, with music by Nolan Gasser and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, fails to elevate moments beyond their present events; instead of moving the plot forward, the songs often slow it down. There are a few exceptions, such as Sam’s “In My Head,” as he attempts to describe his inner turmoil and Joon’s “Yes or No,” as she weighs the risk of falling in love with Sam. Hannah Elless’ lyrical vocals invite listeners into June’s nervous turmoil and how she struggles to feel in control of the overwhelming chaos of the world around her. It’s easy to see why she connects with Sam, whose mimicry of movies is the way he can communicate with the world.
As Sam, Bryce Pinkham gives a knockout performance filled with easy charm. (Sam is performed by Conor Ryan at certain performances.) His skillful vaudevillian comedy offers more insight into his character than any of Kirsten Guenther’s dialogue could. Whether tossing plates in the air in time with music before preparing a dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches with the use of an iron, he effortlessly communicates through very little dialogue. He’s a master of impressions, imitating everyone from Jimmy Stewart to a waitress at the local diner, and the second-act number “I Can Help,” as he applies for a job at a local video store, is an engaging showcase of his song-and-dance skills. He and Elless share a sweet connection, quickly bonding over the sad fate of raisins (a cute but unnecessary song) and their shared perspective on the world around them. It’s clear they need each other.
This romance is not welcome by Benny, played with stoic masculinity by Claybourne Elder. His desperate need for control and authority over Joon is at times understandable and at times overwrought; when he threatens to put her in a group home, the sympathy he established with the audience is greatly lessened. His burgeoning romance with Ruthie, played by Tatiana Wechsler, is at times difficult to remain invested in, due to the character’s abrupt emotional withdrawals. But that could also be due to Kirsten Guenther’s book, which draws greatly from the movie script; at times the conversation feels leaden, especially when spoken by the supporting characters who offer little to the show other than plot devices.
Directed by Jack Cummings III, the musical moves briskly but is bogged down with too many songs that unnecessarily overexplain moments. Without the simultaneously weighted and whimsical, grounded and elevating of Pinkham and Elless, Benny and Joon would be a leaden balloon that never got off the ground.