Benny & Joon
Hannah Elless as Joon and Bryce Pinkham as Sam. Photo by Jim Cox.

Benny & Joon

A jaunty musical about mental illness.

Book by Kirsten Guenther
Music by Nolan Gasser
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Old Globe San Diego
September 7 to October 22, 2017

Mental illness is tough to depict in any medium, let alone a jaunty musical. Yet, the Globe’s world premiere of Benny & Joon makes it work. They don’t really get the illness part right, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s a loveable show and easy to suspend disbelief.

Based on the 1993 movie, the story follows brother and sister Benny (Andrew Samonsky) and Joon (Hannah Elless), who lost their parents in a tragic accident. Benny feels responsible for his younger sister, whose schizophrenia is (mostly) controlled by medication. His main goal in life is getting through the day.

Through some oddly believable hijinks, Sam (Bryce Pinkham) moves into their home. He has his own issues but comes off as an odd but affable house guest. Sam is an intense movie buff, who spouts targeted lines from random movies and dresses like a living homage to Chaplin and Keaton. After some initial hiccups, he fits right in.

Across the board, the acting and singing are truly amazing. Samonsky, Elless and Pinkham have evident chemistry. Add in Benny’s sassy love interest Ruthie (January LaVoy) and the ensemble works exceptionally well.

Still, it’s Pinkham’s show. His mystified facial expressions, effortless slapstick and ever-present movie imitations (particularly the Jimmy Stewart) make the production. He is the sentence and everything else is punctuation.

For those who get anal about these things (me), Joon comes off less as schizophrenic than a quirky young woman with coping issues. It makes me wonder why they name the illness at all. Sam has obvious neurochemistry problems as well (spectrum?), but it’s never named and no one really cares.

Cummings’ direction is governed by movement: props that roll in and out, frenetic gestures, people and objects taking flight. Even outside the musical pieces, there’s a constant dance going on.

The music itself is enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the exception being “I Can Help,” which features Pinkham. “Home Run Kings” is kind of pointless and should probably go away. Again, the cast’s chemistry propels each number and credit lyricist Mindi Dickstein for not rehashing the action. The set includes a Google Earth-type overview of the town (Spokane), complete with 3D rendering. It fixes the place throughout the show.

Despite its nearly three-hour run time, Benny & Joon moves fast, gyrating between silly and moving. Catch it at the Globe, it will cost you a mint on Broadway.

San Diego ,
Josh Baxt has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and writes for a local nonprofit. His play, Like a War, was produced for the annual Fritz litz. Josh's short fiction has been published in the anthologies Sunshine Noir and Hunger and Thirst, as well as the journal City Works.