I’ve seen some comments about “Biloxi Blues” being best produced by college drama programs. For me this only works for accessing actors in the right age group. I would guess that “Biloxi Blues” is not edgy enough for most colleges. My wife and I have seen Poonah the F***dog at the University of Puget Sound and Aunt Raini (Leni Riefenstahl, the woman known as “Hitler’s filmmaker”) at Pacific Lutheran University. So, I guess the main question is whether or not Biloxi Blues from the late 1980s is edgy enough for today’s audiences. Or is it edgy at all?
In the play we see prostitution, hear about homosexuality, experience ethnic slurs, and learn about bullies. Edgy? No. Commonplace in today’s news definitely, but not remarkable.
Let’s start from the beginning. Lakewood Playhouse is following up on last year’s successful production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which is the opening story of a three part autobiography of Neil Simon. “Biloxi Blues” is number two and the last of the series is “Broadway Bound.” Does this mean that BB will follow up next year? It probably depends upon the success of this production.
The main character is Eugene Morris Jerome (Neil Simon) played by Drew Bates. The time is 1943 and Eugene and his bunkies are on their way to boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Drew is continuing his role in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Eugene, like Simon is an aspiring writer. He keeps a journal where he enters his thoughts on his friends and the world. Sometimes he turns to the audience and interjects his thoughts aloud. This breaking down of the “fourth wall” is an aside just between the character and the audience. This device has been around for centuries and perhaps even used by Neanderthal story tellers. Drew plays the naive Eugene extremely well. We feel his heartbreak, we laugh at his sexual awakenings, and we want him to make the world a better place.
Quite probably the characters we see were probably based on real people, but I would guess there were characterizations of individuals. Eugene shares his thoughts on his buddies. Although real life would have involved many more soldiers, we see five recruits plus Eugene and their Sgt. Toomey (played by Managing Artistic Director John Munn).
Sgt. Toomey is a veteran. His job is to make soldiers out of these sometimes wide-eyed and yet to be formed young adults. Toomey take his job seriously. He may have a heart of gold, but the metal plate in his head is silver. Munn plays the rough and tumble good shepherd with off-kilter bravado and actions. His late night antics with Arnold Epstein (played by George Blanchard) was a wonderful scene that kept the audience involved and wondering.
Blanchard is one of the best examples of the college drama school comment. He looks like the not-even-old-enough-to-shave draftees from 1943. Blanchard did a wonderful job of vacillating between malingering and standing up for Epstein’s beliefs . . . and the right thing to do.
Joseph Wykowski (played by Lucas Gomez) has a constant erection. I didn’t expect to see it, but some visual indication might have been in order. Gomez played the semi-bully and hater well. We cared about him.
Ethan Penland plays James Hennesey. We probably hear the least and know the least about him. He’s like the joker in a deck of cards as we change perspective near the end for the play.
Travis Martinez as Roy Selridge, like George Blanchard fits the youthful look and desires of young soldiers. He played the whorehouse visitor extremely well. Martinez and Aaron Mohs-Hale as Don Carney are both minor characters, but fill out the story well. Each has their own story and sometimes their own song. We learn the basics in the two scenes as they kid and insult each other on the train to and from boot camp.
The women have very little to do in this play. Devan Malone plays the friendly and kindly whore well. You respect her attitude and her handling of the young soldiers. Cassie Fastabend plays the young Catholic girl who befriends Eugene.
“Biloxi Blues” was directed by John Olive, who also directed last year’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Olive was the Playhouse’s very first Managing Artistic Director in the early 1980s. He did very well with his actors and their characters. I do think the pacing needs to pick up, but that should happen naturally.
I only have one issue with the costumes. The soldiers all wore white socks. I agree they might have had more padding for jumping around on stage and traversing the steep stairs, but I would have thought olive-drab would have been ideal for the socks, especially since the production is sponsored by Military Supplies & Collectibles.
The set, mostly the bunk beds, were sturdy as the young recruits jumped off and on. They needed to be solid and they were. I liked the latrine and the railroad car scenes as well. Nicely done. John Olive was also the Scenic Designer. One of the master carpenters was Aaron Mohs-Hale who played Don Carney.
Our little group enjoyed the production. It sparked comments during and afterward, which is always a good sign.
The show runs through October 6th – for tickets – tix6.centerstageticketing.com/sites/lakewoodplayhouse/event-details.php?e=182