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Benny & Joon
A Touching Musical

By on May 2, 2019

Benny & Joon Tackles Tough Topic

by Jim Dombrowski

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, a Tony Award winning regional theater and the #1 playhouse in America, prides itself on its ability to be on the cutting edge; debuting productions before they hit Broadway.

Benny & Joon, a new musical, made its East Coast Premiere in April at The Paper Mill Playhouse. The show debuted on stage in San Diego in 2017.  The 1993 movie version starred Johnny Depp.

Photo: Author of “Benny & Joon” Kirsten Guenther with Post Eagle Play Review team of James Dombrowski and his son James.

The book by Kirsten Guenther coupled with the music by Nolan Gasser and the lyrics by Mindi Dickstein create a wonderful portrayal of two challenged individuals. It is a love story between Joon, played by Hannah Elless, who has schizophrenia, yet she is a fantastic artist; and Sam, played by Bryce Pinkham and a few selected performances by Connor Ryan who starred in “A British Invasion”, who possibly has autism.  Their roles which are complicated address topics often hidden under a family’s rug.

The Paper Mill Playhouse should be applauded for staging a love story tackling the topic of mental illness. The topics of love and life with the mentally ill are something often overlooked in society. I can see this show going on a National Tour.

Mental illness in America has been obscured by cuts in funding and the shutting down of mental hospitals over the past 30 years. Mental illness is often depicted with crazy people who are dangerous, but there are 1000’s of people who manage their illness and can live productive lives. A national tour would play well among mental illness advocates and help bring an understanding to the public that creativity and independence exists among the mentally challenged.

The author Kirsten Guenther was very proud to be involved with this groundbreaking topic.  “My understanding of mental illness was fostered by my mom who is a doctor,” said Kirsten.

Applauds to Mark Hoebee and Michael Stottsof The Paper Mill for staging this fun yet serious musical.

The final production of The Paper Mill Season will be the blockbuster Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast” running May 29 through June 30.

My interview with Ms. Guenther went beyond “Benny and Joon.”  In light of the horrific fire that ravaged Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Kirsten spoke about her time in Paris. Kirsten Guenther who graduated from USC and the NYU Graduate School moved to Paris upon finishing her formal education.  She spent two years working in Paris before taking up writing full time.  Her writing has won her many awards which include the Richard Rogers, Rockefeller and Dramatists Guild Fellowship, plus a Lincoln Center Honorarium. Her credits include “Little Miss Fix-it” televised on NBC, and a new book to Paramount’s “Roman Holiday”, just to mention a few to a long list of accomplishments.

Her two year career in Paris, France had her employed by BonjourParis.com who supplied USAToday.com with their Paris City Guide. Together with the editor she helped write the City Guide.

The young university graduate studied French in middle school and high school, and modestly explained it didn’t help much as they spoke so quickly.  “The most important aspect of living and working in Paris was learning French etiquette,” noted Kirsten.

When asked if she ever did an article on the Cathedral, Kirsten did not but her work on the Paris City Travel Guide included Norte Dame as a must see destination. “The Cathedral was a common meeting place for myself and all Parisians.  I’m traveling to Paris this summer to meet my friend Laure and when we get ice cream we will stroll by the Cathedral,” voices Kirsten.  “Parisians are very proud of their city and its culture and history.  You don’t dare remark about the beauty of the Louvre pyramid or the Eliffel Tower as most of them will moan about what eye sores they are.  When you reference the Cathedral most of them (Parisians) light up.  It’s a breathtaking work of art and most Parisians I knew were exceptionally proud of its beauty,” explained Kirsten. “My first thoughts when I saw the fire on television were for Parisians and the loss they would suffer, should it completely perish. I’m relieved they are at work already rebuilding it,” a thoughtful Kirsten expressed.

Look for more plays and television shows written by Kirsten Guenther as she is a wonderful talented writer with a level head and a great personality.