CONNECTICUT ARTS CONNECTION — An award-winning site for news and reviews of Connecticut’s professional theater and arts.
By Lauren Yarger
Review by Zander Opper
Talkin’ Broadway Regional Reviews: Connecticut & The Berkshires
Biloxi Blues, Neil Simon’s Tony Award winning play, is receiving a very funny and enjoyable production at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Biloxi Blues is set in 1943 and is at least partly autobiographic of Neil Simon’s own experiences in World War II. There is much humor in this play, as well as elements of a more series nature, and the Ivoryton Playhouse production manages to embrace both the comedy and the drama superbly. Chief among the assets of this Biloxi Blues is the perfect casting of Zal Owen as Eugene Jerome, the playwright’s alter-ego in the show. Director Sasha Bratt has also guided fine performances from the rest of his cast and the show feels very authentic. On Glenn David Bassett’s expansive set, this show truly takes one into the world of the military, with lots of laughs, as well as more sobering moments.
In Biloxi Blues, it is stated early on that Eugene Jerome (who serves as the show’s narrator, as well as being part of the play) has three goals to accomplish in his training in Biloxi, Mississippi: he wants to become a playwright, stay alive, and lose his virginity. Watching how this character goes about fulfilling these goals proves to be a delight. Zal Owen is just about ideal as Eugene, who keeps a journal of his military experiences and his impressions of the other soldiers who are training with him. Owen brings a nice sense of humor to the role as the audience watches the action of the play through his eyes.
Happily, Zal Owen is surrounded by other performers who also bring fresh life to their characters. As the misfit and rebel in the group, Arnold Epstein, Alec Silberblatt is excellent, as Arnold battles the hard-driving Sgt. Toomey, played with almost frightening conviction by Mike Mihm, at every step of the play. In a way, the character of Arnold Epstein almost becomes central to the show and Neil Simon does a great job of establishing an arc in the relationship between Arnold and Sgt. Toomey, with ultimately gratifying results.
There is also the tough, sex-crazed Wykowski, played wonderfully by Conor M. Hamill. I saw this actor do fine work in the play, Third, last season and he is just as good here. In addition to Wykowski, there are also the soldiers Selridge (the enormously amusing Chandler Smith) and Carney (skillfully played by Ethan Kirschbaum), the latter being notable for singing songs in his sleep. There is also Hennessy, who harbors a secret not to be revealed here. George Mayer portrays Hennessy extremely well and it is worth noting that Mayer is making his professional debut in this play.
Not to be forgotten, there are two women who figure into the plot. Moira O’Sullivan is both tough and funny as the prostitute Rowena, whom the soldiers visit, and she brings a certain slyness to the part, as well. As the endearing Daisy, whom Eugene Jerome ultimately falls for, Andee Buccheri is all sweetness and charm. Daisy proves to be the perfect match for Eugene in a scene at a dance toward the end of the play. In addition to be being the audience’s guide, Owen manages to get all the laughs in the script, as well as offering a glimpse of the writer Neil Simon eventually would become.
Director Sasha Bratt keeps the show moving briskly; this is one production that seems to get better as it goes along. Bratt works very well with his designers, including Lisa Bebey, who provides the period-perfect costumes, and Tate R. Burmeister, who designed both lighting and sound, contributing heavily to the success of the show. Ivoryton Playhouse provides the ideal showcase for Neil Simon’s seriocomic Biloxi Blues, and don’t be surprised if you leave this show with a big smile on your face.
Biloxi Blues continues performances at Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT through May 14, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 860-767-7318.
YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW WITH “BILOXI BLUES”
Eugene Morris Jerome is now a man. You might remember him as a precocious teenager dealing with growing up in Brooklyn in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Eugene is the central character created by Simon, semi-autobigraphically, in a trilogy. Now is the time for a second installment and, thanks to the Ivoryton Playhouse, you can come meet Eugene from now until Sunday, May 14 as “Biloxi Blues” salutes soldiers.
It’s World War Ii and our Brooklyn boy is now twenty years old and is leaving home and heading to Biloxi, Mississippi to join the United States Army. Private first class Jerome is now an active observer, an eager participant in boot camp and a narrator writing about the trials and triumphs of serving patriotically for his country.
Come meet Zal Owen as the lovable Eugene and his best new pals Alec Silberblatt as Arnold, Conor M. Hamill as Wykowski, Ethan Kirschbaum as Carney, George Mayer as Hennesey and Chandler Smith as Selridge. Overseeing their every move and moment is the hard boiled Mike Mihm as their commander, the dictator Sergeant Toomey. As young recruits, they exhibit all the ABCs, anxiety, bravado and courage that you would expect to witness. They tease, swear and act tough as they prepare for their new assignment: going to war. With sly wit and a deep sense of humanity, Simon inducts his soldiers with all the brashness of heading off into the unknown and the fears that entails.
These men, thrown together as they are, have to grow up quickly. It’s Sergeant Toomey’s job and obligation to toughen them up and supply all the discipline and obedience they will need to endure combat. Mike Mihm as Toomey is up for the challenge. Push-ups by the hundreds and long enforced marches through the swamps, peeling potatoes and scrubbing latrines are all part of the patriotic package they must face. Readiness for battle is a prerogative and instant responsibility is essential.
As the recruits tease, ridicule and support each other, Eugene records his memoirs for posterity, with pithy comments on the goings on and day-to-day challenges. A 48 hour pass allows Eugene to explore two of his list of goals, to lose his virginity and to fall in love, both with the help of Moira O’Sullivan and Andee Buccheri. He also plans to become a writer and not to die in the war. Sasha Bratt as director puts these men through their paces in a heartwarming and poignant way.
For tickets ($50, seniors $45, students $22, children $17), call the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Pack your duffel bag and get ready to do some push-ups as a maniacal drill instructor puts you through your paces or will die trying.
Seriously Funny: “Biloxi Blues” at Ivoryton Playhouse
By Brooks Appelbaum, Special to the Shoreline Times
The Ivoryton Playhouse production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” directed with a sure hand by Sasha Brätt and playing through May 14, is not to be missed. If you have never seen this second installment of Simon’s semi-autobiographical Eugene trilogy (“Biloxi Blues” comes between “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound”), this version is a perfect introduction. And even if you’ve seen the show many times, come to this production for a fresh, intelligent, moving night at the theater. Oh, and you’ll find yourself smiling and laughing, too.
“Biloxi Blues” begins in 1943, with Eugene and five other young men on a train heading for basic training in Biloxi, MS before they ship out as soldiers in WWII. Upon arrival, they will all learn that basic training is anything but basic under the eccentric and seemingly heartless lash of Sgt. Toomey (a terrifically charismatic Mike Mihm). Unlike the other two plays in the trilogy, Eugene (the pitch-perfect and touching Zal Owen), rather than driving the plot serves as the observer (he records everything he sees and thinks in his “memoirs”) and the interpreter for the audience. Though each soldier-in-the-making has his own story, the play’s main dramatic tension builds between Sgt. Toomey and a recalcitrant, brilliant, misplaced young man named Arnold Epstein (Alec Silberblatt) until, by the climactic scene, we understand that “Biloxi Blues” has more layers than we might have guessed.
The cast, under Brätt’s fine direction, sets this production apart and above. Each actor nails the type that the script requires and brings to his role originality and commitment. As Epstein, Silberblatt plays every moment with complete conviction so that his comic turns, though broad, never lose their realism: time after time, one wants to snatch him away from his own seemingly hopeless determination to win against Toomey. And Owen conveys Eugene’s combination of naïveté and wisdom with his huge brown eyes, his confiding voice, his string bean of a body, and his instant connection with us. His memoirs may be top secret where the other men are concerned, but endearingly, he is an open book to us.
Ethan Kirschbaum, as Carney, beautifully portrays a young man with big dreams of musical fame and an open, tender heart. Chandler Smith, as the blow-hard spark plug Selridge, brings energy and a sharp sense of timing to the stage, and he captures the fear below Selridge’s tough-guy surface. As Hennesey, a gentle giant who is kind and empathic, George Mayer gives a superb performance, all the more commendable since this is his acting debut. One would never guess that Mayer isn’t a seasoned performer, and his big scene is an emotional stunner. Conor M. Hamill, as the bullying, racist Wykowski, would walk away with the show if the other actors were not so strong: he has energy to burn, and his every move and word is frighteningly arrogant and cocky. When he surprises us, we never see it coming.
One of the most challenging roles here is that of Sgt. Toomey, and Mike Mihm couldn’t be better. Beginning with a mercilessly loud delivery and almost convincing us that Toomey is a caricature of a tough military man, Mihm’s Toomey becomes more and more complex as the play goes on: Mihm gives him a twisted humor and the hint of an unbalanced mind that perfectly set up his final scene.
Moira O’Sullivan plays a sweetheart of a hooker; her scenes stay this side of clichéd and are unexpectedly tender. The one mis-cast and mis-directed role is that of Daisy, Eugene’s first love. Andee Buccheri plays one note throughout, and where we need to see a shyness and delicacy to match Eugene’s, we instead see a perky young woman who is a bit too sure of herself.
The set is ingenious, thanks to designer Glenn David Bassett; and Tate Burmeister’s sound and lighting give the production a nice texture. The costumes, too, by Lisa Bebey, are just right.
Don’t miss this marvelous production of a deserved classic. Brätt’s directing and his cast make Simon’s script shine with special light, and that is high praise indeed.
By Brooks Appelbaum, Special to the Shoreline Times
Reviewed by Tony Annicone
The current show at Ivoryton Playhouse is “Biloxi Blues” by Neil Simon. This show is the second play in the three play cycle of the Eugene Morris Jerome plays. The Broadway show opened on March 28, 1985, closed on June 28, 1986, ran for 524 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Play. Here, Eugene is a young army recruit during the Second World War going through basic training. The story takes place at Army boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1943. Eugene and his fellow recruits suffer under the hard nosed Sergeant Toomey, partake the daily “mess” served up for meals, and join together to visit a local whorehouse and officially become “adults.” Eugene also confronts the ugly specter of anti-Semitism and for the first time, falls in love. The community values and prejudices from the recruits idiosyncratic home lives that they bring to the barracks, is authentic in this show. The play is about how vulnerable twenty year olds contend with these different values and how they survive and achieve their personal rites of passage. Director Sasha Bratt casts these nine roles very well and gives each of the performers their moment to shine in this funny and thought provoking play.
Sasha’s insightful direction brings out the comic and poignant moments splendidly. He makes each character unique so the audience is able to distinguish one from the other. The unit set design is by Glenn Bassett. In the first railway scene the men are nervous at their arrival at the base and in the last they are nervous as they head off for war. The army costumes are by Lisa Bibey.
Leading this cast is Zal Owen as Eugene. He not only plays this role but narrates the show as well. Zal gives the role the dimension it needs and interacts marvelously with his fellow cast mates. Some of his funniest moments come when he visits a prostitute, fights with the others when they look at his memoirs and tries to hide the SOS they are forced to eat. A poignant moment occurs with Daisy in the last scene. He also describes what happens to everyone in the final scene.
The brow beating drill sergeant is excellently played by Mike Mihm. He runs roughshod over these men, barking orders, demanding push-ups and forcing them to eat inedible food as well as doing forced marches through the marshland. His show stopping scene happens in the second act with a powerful revelation scene with Epstein.
The rest of the cast do splendid work in their roles and are perfectly cast in their roles. The pivotal role of the nerd Arnold Epstein is played by Alex Silberblatt. Arnold claims to have medical problems, brings a note from his doctor that Toomey tears up but in his own way eventually stands up to him thereby winning the day. Alex’s poignant moment occurs when he describes being handcuffed, his head put into a latrine filled with urine by two bullies.
Conor M. Hamill returns in triumph for his third time at Ivoryton Playhouse as the gung ho recruit, Joseph Wykowski who constantly has a hard on. He gives this character the high intensity it needs. Wykowski calls the other recruits derogatory names, reads Eugene’s memoirs out loud to the others and makes love to the hooker for 34 minutes. In the what would you do if you only had a week left to live which is initiated by Eugene, he says he wants to make love to the Queen of England because the King only makes love to her once a year to have a prince. I last reviewed Conor as Francis, the beat up stage manager in “La Cage Aux Folles” here back in 2014.
Chandler Smith is a hoot as Roy Seldridge. His one liners are comical and his last wish in the game is that he wants to make love to the seven richest women in the world and have them pay him a million dollars each. Chandler also grapples with Eugene while Joe reads his memoirs, says he’s past his peak with the hooker while going in her room and out in a very short amount of time.
Ethan Kirschbaum plays Don Carney excellently. He is constantly singing in the show. His funniest line is SOS is the first food I’m afraid of. For his last seven days he wants to sing at Radio City Music Hall for 4000 women and a Decca Record producer. Don sings “Embraceable You” to close Act 1. Ethan also has a marvelous scene with Eugene when he reveals that he really can’t make up his mind about things.
George Mayer makes a marvelous theatre debut as Hennessy. He is first seen as a private who is constantly on KP duty. Later on in the show, he has a secret revealed in an astounding manner. George’s interactions with the other cast members are right on the money and this should be the first of many shows in his theatrical career.
Rounding out the cast are Moira O’ Sullivan as the prostitute, Rowena with whom Eugene makes love for the first time and Andee Buccheri as Daisy with whom he falls in love for the first time.
So for a fantastic look at seldom done Neil Simon show, be sure to catch “Biloxi Blues” at Ivoryton Playhouse. Tell them Tony sent you.
BILOXI BLUES (26 April to 14 May)
Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, CT