‘Benny & Joon’, to be a new stage classic

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special to the Village News


Stand up and cheer. No, really. Stand up and cheer. Here is the chance to participate in the world premiere of “Benny & Joon” which opened at the Old Globe Theatre in the heart of Balboa Park on Sept. 15.

Based on the 1993 MGM film by the same name, this glowing production is the brightest star in the galaxy. It came to San Diego by way of the festival at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre in 2016 which has been held in New York city since 1989.

“Benny & Joon” was just one of eight new musicals to be seen that year for a 45-minute reading before a panel of members. Fortunately, associate producer Eric Keene-Louie was there from the Old Globe and imagined it as the opening show for the 2017-2018 season. And he was right.

This production of “Benny & Joon” is surely destined to be a new classic for the stage, so don’t wait to get a ticket, go now, before it leaves for Broadway.

For years, actually decades, I have attended plays, always in hope that this time I will see magic. Granted, I have seen a some really good shows in San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, even Stratford-upon-Avon. Probably more than 500 plays in all. Yet, before this production, I have never seen an actor with the courage to bare his or her soul to become the real person inside their character. All of the leading characters perform at this level. “Benny & Joon” is a master class in the performing arts.

For this reason alone, I would encourage every local director, writer, lyricist, musicologist and actor to see the show. This is what live theatre can be. Sublime magic!

Again, this review is about the best stage show I have ever seen. Ever. Ever. Ever. In production and entertainment value, it ranks above the biggies: Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Chicago, Wicked, Cats, Beauty and the Beast, Jersey Boys, Rent, Mamma Mia, 42nd Street, Fiddler on the Roof, and even My Fair Lady for emotion.

“Benny & Joon” is the new standard. The words are filled with hope by lyricist Mindi Dickstein. The delicate orchestrations are bright, fresh and imaginative, with lots of passion and nuance written by Nolan Gasser. And the words. Ah, the dialogue sounds so real the way Kirsten Guenther has written the book.

The four main characters are Joon, Benny, Sam, and Ruthie. Benny is short for Benjamin (Andrew Samonsky), the over-protective big brother. You might have seen Samonsky in “Guiding Light” or as Lt. Cable in the PBS production of “South Pacific”.  He has a familiar face. It is a gentle, handsome face which shows his every thought and feeling before even uttering a sound. He is vulnerable. Clear voiced and masculine, Benny isn’t afraid to show how scared he is to fall in love with Ruthie, the waitress.

And Ruthie is fearless and willing to risk heartbreak. As the grown up in the show, Ruthie is played by January LaVoy (don’t you just love her name?). She has a clear, wonderful voice and a steady demeanor. While playing a waitress, she is not without dignity.

“Benny & Joon” is about a brother (Benny) who has been responsible for his special needs little sister (Joon) ever since their parents’ death in a car crash. It has been just “Benny & Joon” since that day.

But Joon is no longer a child. She now requires a different kind of care as she develops into a woman. Hannah Elless personifies Joon (Jupiter). A young lady with special needs, Elless brings dignity to her portrayal through her masterful interpretation allowing us to see Joon’s heart as she meanders through her days. Thanks to Elless, we see Joon not as a handicapped person just a quirky one. We yearn to hug her.

And then there is Sam (Bryce Pinkham). Pinkham has been twice nominated for awards (a Tony in 2014 and a Grammy in 2016) which becomes evident when watching him work his quiet mastery on stage. Embodying silent star Buster Keaton’s whimsical, idiosyncratic identity, Pinkham draws the audience to him like a magnet. A man of few words, he commands attention with his every gesture. Not since Robin Williams has anyone touched on the strength of the art of mime like Pinkham. Bravo!

The supporting roles are well cast. Paolo Montalban plays Larry and Jason SweetTooth Williams plays Waldo; both are employees at Benny’s garage. Dr. Cruz (Natalie Toro) is Joon’s doctor. Benny’s school chum Mike (Colin Hanlon) is the odd ball that loses Sam to Joon in a poker game.

The costumes and set design are by Dane Laffrey. The great sound quality was designed by Kai Harada. Lighting by R. Lee Kennedy and the choreography by Scott Rink. Directed brilliantly by Jack Cummings III. The excellent orchestrations were written by Michael Starobin but the guy with the baton is J. Oconer Navarro. He brings life to this memorable score from the imagination of Nolan Gasser.

“Benny & Joon” is at The Old Globe through Oct. 22, 2017. Arrive early to find free parking. For tickets, call the Box Office at (619) 234-5623 or email  [email protected].

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