Regional Reviews: San Diego
Based on the 1993 cult hit film, Benny & Joon tells the story of a man named Benny (Andrew Samonsky) whose sister Joon (Hannah Elless) has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Joon has many moments of lucidity, but she becomes agitated easily. She is skilled enough to call Benny at his auto repair shop frequently with her mental distractions, but Benny is certain she could get into big trouble if left alone. Caring for Joon has become a big part of Benny's life, and even though his workmates (Colin Hanlon, Paolo Montalban, and Jason SweetTooth Williams) encourage his interest in a local waitress (January LaVoy), Benny shies away.
One evening, Benny brings Joon along to a poker party with the guys. While Benny is out of the room, Joon sits in and, without really knowing it, "wins" the obligation of housing Sam (Mr. Pinkham), a cousin of one of the players. Needing someone to mind Joon, Benny assents to taking Sam in.
Sam might best be described as eccentric. While practically illiterate, he has immersed himself in classic films and cannot only quote from them but act out their scenes with complete credibility. Sam and Joon turn out to be more than compatiblethey're good for each other. Benny, though, still can't bring himself to move forward with Ruthie, the waitress, even though she shows him clear interest.
Compared to the others, Sam is a character of almost mythic proportions, and Mr. Pinkham plays him that way. He rattles off his film quotes in different voices, and his body constantly seems ready to spring into some kind of mimic action. Unfortunately, his relationship with Joon serves to "tame" him in disappointing ways, bringing his high-flying antics solidly down to earth.
At this point in its development, Benny & Joon's creative team (book by Kirsten Guenther, music by Nolan Gasser, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein) seems not to know how to make Sam's transition from sprite to romantic partner work. Part of the problem, I think, is that the show has more in it than it needs. The book dwells on too many details and insists on working out each of its (somewhat less interesting) plot lines. The 24 songs are consistently tuneful, and the lyrics exhibit flashes of inspiration, but there's too much of everything. At a current run time of nearly three hours, there just isn't enough substance to hold interest. Cuts of twenty to thirty minutes would inevitably help bring focus to the proceedings. Some of those cuts could come from scenes featuring Joon (and Benny's) therapist, Dr. Cruz (Natalie Toro). Ms. Toro plays her role well, but her character is stuck with delivering bromides instead of insight.
The Old Globe has given Benny & Joon a deceptively simple production, consisting mostly of a unit set filled in with movable pieces designed (by Dane Laffrey, who also designed the costumes) to be pushed on and off by the performers as settings change. His color schemes are bright and sometimes askew, such as introducing yellow as a deliberately clashing element. Lighting by R. Lee Kennedy and sound by Kai Harada complement the production's look and feel. Music director J. Oconer Navarro's eight-piece pit band sounds bigger than that, and Scott Rink's choreography enhances the musical experience without unduly calling attention to itself.
Director Jack Cummings III stages Sam's scenes with the style and grace they need (there is a particularly lovely encounter between Sam and a video store owner, played by Mr. SweetTooth Williams), but by contrast the other scenes seem particularly mundane. His actors are all working at a professional level, but only Mr. Pinkham consistently stands out, which is a shame.
Benny & Joon's "bones" are solid, but there's work to be done to make consistent soaring a reality.
Performs Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7pm, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm through October 22, 2017, on The Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or online at www.theoldglobe.org.