‘Benny and Joon’ exudes quirky charm at Paper Mill

By Liz Keill

MILLBURN, NJ – You know you’re in for something different when Sam, in a dated black suit and hat, stands on the stage alone. Then a tiny train moves by and he gets on, with suitcase in hand.

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We’re off to “Benny and Joon,” the musica which has its east coast premiere at Paper Mill.  It’s based on the 1993 movie that starred Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn and Julianna Moore. This isn’t a big, splashy Broadway show, but it does tell a story I a moving way and enhanced by the score.

Benny and Joon are brother and sister whose parents died several years earlier in a car accident. Joon has emotional problems and Benny has become her caretaker and protector. So much of the theme deals with loss and letting go. One of Benny’s poker playing pals has a cousin, Sam, coming to visit and he somehow ends up staying at Benny’s house. Since Sam is as much a misfit as Joon, they soon find they have common ground and relate to each other.

Bryce Pinkham as Sam is a marvel of mime and magic tricks. He likes to imitate actors in old time movies when he isn’t juggling creative dinners, playing with rolls in a restaurant or entertaining Joon while Benny goes to his job. Hannah Elless as Joon conveys the schizophrenic behavior that has prevented her from living a full life. Claybourne Elder as her brother is torn between his responsibility to her and a possible romance with Ruthie (Tatiana Wechsler.) There are even more complications as the therapist (Natalie Toro) suggests that Joon might be better off in a group home.

Through it all are pleasurable songs by Nolan Gasser and Mindi Dicksten, with a book by Kirsten Guenther. Director Jack Cummings III has kept the story moving as we root for Benny and Joon, Sam and Ruth, to find their happy endings.  Ruthie’s “You Meet a Man” in Act II has a soulful appeal. And the title song is an intimate moment between brother and sister that they sing together before bed every night. Much of it is just fun to watch, especially Sam’s deft serving of supper in the “Grilled Cheese Ballet.” Benny’s poker pals are in fine form too: Colin Hanlon as Mike, Paolo Montalban as Larry and Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo.

Scenic and costume design are by Dane Laffrey, with the actors themselves often moving set pieces on and off stage. Scott Rink’s choreography and orchestra under the direction of J. Oconer Navarro add to the changes of mood from exuberant to desperate.  Performances of “Benny and Joon” continue at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May5. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit papermill.org.