The Benefits of Benny’s Unfortunate Fate

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The Empire Revue is a home-grown cabaret, with a long track record of bringing RI-based humor and song to its regular attendees. With Benny’s the Musical, the ER has transcended its usual format as a collection of loosely connected skits and bits, both musical and comedic.

The Empire Revue enters new territory by tying it all together with a central plot, thematically consistent subplots and a number of fun, quirky characters who have their own arcs. You root for the lovebirds, laugh at the mishaps that befall the “local prop comedian” who relies on Benny’s for the tools of his trade, and feel sympathy for the obsessive regular so familiar with the landscape the store lets him help customers.

This musical is uniquely Rhode Island, peppered with accent humor and only-in-RI references to everything from Rocky Point to Almacs. By itself, the nostalgic attachment to a retail operation like Benny’s requires a uniquely RI perspective on change and the value of neighborhoods. It sold out almost as soon as it was announced, creating high expectations.

And this Bennyificient event doesn’t disappoint, capturing both in-jokes and a small-city, small-business sensibility in an entertaining wrapper.

Revue director Keith Munslow opened the first performance with a disclaimer – the entire production was conceived, staged, rehearsed and performed in just over a month; most of that happened after the show sold out (no pressure on the cast to come up with something good after that). And everything we witnessed was created by the same folks performing it.

The performers absolutely rose to the occasion with a piece that has pacing, throughlines, themes and pathos. Audience reaction was right there with the characters, as they passed from idealistic glee over their retail paradise, through tragedy, denial and ultimately acceptance and resilience.

The songs are catchy, lyrically sophisticated and melodically memorable – and they play into each other and call back as the narrative moves along. Highlights include “Everything you Need (is behind these automatic doors),” which literally sings the praises of the little retail outlet that could, “I Never Saw It Coming,” a thumping ballad of regret, and a tongue-twister of a tune by the resident economics professor explaining the capriciousness of market forces.

The story focuses on the front-line employees and their neighborhood super-regulars; the central office and their decision-making are but unheard voices on the other end of a prop phone. Each performance is solid and stands out in its own way – and unlike most Revue performances, each actor inhabits a single character for the duration. Stuart Wilson, Kate Teichman, Brian Elliot, Jimmy Sorel, Rachel Frieden, Kate Sayles, Nicky Mariani, Tom Vale and emotional center/store manager Kelly Seigh are musically supported by the Superchief Trio.

The result is a story that resonates emotionally, even with people who may not get all the RI references. For locals, it will hit a sweet nostalgic note and perhaps bring some closure to those suffering Benny’s withdrawal (can you be nostalgic for something that was around two months ago?). But even if you’re not a superfan, there’s a fun story anchored by great performances here. It received a standing ovation from its opening night audience, and you’re likely to leave smiling and humming.

Benny’s the Musical will be performed again on Sunday, Mar 11 at 8pm at AS220, 115 Empire St, PVD. Future performances are being planned, although they’re not yet scheduled – we’ll update this article as they’re announced.

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