Learning about life, love, and dealing with people from various backgrounds is difficult for anyone, but experiencing all these things while in basic training for World War II makes for drama and several comedic moments. Neil Simon's BILOXI BLUES is a coming of age story told through the perspective of Eugene Jerome and his interactions with his fellow army recruits. Eugene, of course, is a writer who keeps a memoir of his Biloxi, Mississippi boot camp experience.
To set the stage, wartime propaganda and American classic war songs like "Over There," played before curtain up. The production drew an older crowd, some of whom probably lived through similar events. Still, most audience members can connect to Eugene's first-time experiences, like leaving home for the first time or losing virginity in the least romantic way possible. Several issues addressed in BILOXI BLUES are relevant to today like gays in the military and the use of Draconian methods to instill discipline.
Carl Krickmire's interpretation of Eugene, as both an observer and participant, matched well with each situation. Krickmire was able to balance Eugene's naivety, with natural emotional strength. While the New Jersey accent has something to be desired, Krickmire's made his character instantly likeable.
Another one of Neil Simon's compelling characters is Epstein, a self-righteous intellectual, perfectly portrayed by C.K. Anderson. In one scene, Epstein is bullied in the latrines to the point where he considers deserting the army. Anderson completely committed to the role and performed the scene much emotional intensity in nothing more than his boxers. In fact, many of the men performed, at some point, in nothing more than their underwear.
No army story would be complete without a crazy drill sergeant. Stg. Toomey can only be described as intense, funny by fault, and psychotic. In a role that requires succinct and loud delivery of almost every line, Tyler Cravens was able to carry Stg. Toomey's intensity and energy to the very end. Despite his army hardened exterior, Cravens gave hints of Stg. Toomey's humanity in moments like the outing of the homosexual, and his eventual drunken breakdown.
The rest of the cast adds richness to Simon's variety of personalities used to tell Eugene's story. In the end, viewers connect with each character hoping for the best, but always feel the looming shadow of war and how that will affect the future. The bonds the men created in the Army barracks ultimately make up the type of soldier each become.
Set design by Tom Mangieri used brilliantly engineered set pieces that were so versatile, that turning them and shifting various stage elements changed the scene from a train car, to inside the army barracks, to a whore house in downtown Biloxi. This was complemented by the simple color-lit backdrop. A unique feature to this theatre is the auditorium ceiling, which became fully star lit during the romantic outdoor scene.
At times the show felt long almost spending too much time on the tense moments and drawing out the comedic spots for a few extra laughs. The show run-time was about three hours, which may be difficult to sit through, especially for the older crowd.
BILOXI BLUES stars C.K. Anderson as Epstein, Jennifer Bonner as Rowena, Tyler Cravens as Stg. Toomey, Andy Haynes as Carney, Carl Krickmire as Eugene, Michael Osowski as Wykowski, Steven Pugh as Selridge, Cody Senger as Hennessy, and Julie Snyder as Daisy.
Produced by Beth Marshall Productions and directed by Rob Winn Anderson, BILOXI BLUES runs through February 24th at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden. For showtimes and tickets call (407) 877-4736, or visit www.gardentheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Kristen Wheeler (www.khphotographics.com)