Wednesday, April 17, 2019

New Jersey Review: Benny and Joon

Bryce Pinkham, Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Benny and Joon
By Kirsten Guenther, based on the film written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil.
Music by Nolan Gasser
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Choreography by Scott Rink
Music Direction by J. Oconor Navarro
Directed by Jack Cummings III

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
A tale of a brother trying to take care of his mentally-challenged sister and a sister trying to find herself outside of her brother's shadow, based on the 1993 film  of the same name, written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil and starring  Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson.

This staging, imaginatively directed by Jack Cummings III, features Bryce Pinkham (A Gentelman's Guide to Love and Murder) as Sam, an odd introverted man the siblings "win" in a poker game and who changes their lives. He copes by escaping to the the scenes of old movies that play in his head and somehow, that is a perfect match for Joon (Hannah Elless), who navigates her schizophrenia and the two find the relationship they always have been looking for, but which they thought was impossible. 

Joon's brother, Benny (Claybourne Elder), struggles with this, but is it because he is protecting the sister he has cared for for 15 years following the death of their parents in a car accident, or is it because he resents the fact that she has found happiness when he has sacrificed his own?  He backed away from his own chance at happiness with waitress Ruthie (and engaging Tatiana Wechsler) to stay with Joon. Would a group home -- which Joon adamantly doesn't want -- be the best solution?

What Are the Highlights?
Finally, a musical with wit, warmth and whimsy. Cummings creates an environment where both reality and fantasy feel right at home. Pinkham is in his element as the Charlie-Chaplinesque loner whose character delights with a pure heart and true friendship while he quotes movie scenes (while giving impressions of the stars) and serving up food items prepared in fanciful ways. 

While light and breezy (with choreography by Scott Rink), the story manages to deal with serious issues through characters who are flawed, but very likable. Family and friendship are real winners here. I'd like to see this show make the leap to Broadway.

What Are the Lowlights?
The music by Nolan Gasser is pleasant if not memorable (except for the title tune which sticks). A poker-playing song seems a bit over the top. Some vocals seem stretched (though Natalie Toro, who wowed us in Broadway's Tale of Two Cities, gets a chance to soar vocally during a short solo number).

More Info:
Conor Ryan as Sam at certain performances,Colin Hanlon as Mike, Paolo Montalban as Larry, Natalie Toro as Dr. Cortez/Mrs. Smail, Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo/Video Store Owner and Belinda Allyn.

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Benny and  Joon plays a limited engagement through Sunday, May 5, 2019 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ.

-- No content notes


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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2022 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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