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BWW Review: Don't Miss the Terrific Cast in Vivid Theatre's Production of Neil Simon's BILOXI BLUES at the JCC - One Performance Remaining

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One of Simon's Best!

BWW Review: Don't Miss the Terrific Cast in Vivid Theatre's Production of Neil Simon's BILOXI BLUES at the JCC - One Performance Remaining

What is the best Neil Simon play? Several should be in the mix. Obviously The Odd Couple, probably his most revived show, usually heads the class. But what would we pick next? Rumors? Lost in Yonkers? Barefoot in the Park? Certainly the Brighton Beach trilogy is Simon's most heartfelt work, his most beloved. And while people usually pick the first of the group, Brighton Beach Memoirs, as their favorite, or the last, Broadway Bound, I think BILOXI BLUES is the closest to The Odd Couple as his masterwork. So I am thankful that Vivid Theatre Productions and Tampa JCC's Federation has staged this show for our area (at the JCC); it is Neil Simon at his salty best.

It's 1943, and a group of enlisted men suffer basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, at the hands of a warped sergeant, Merwin Toomey. World War 2 is still raging, and these few good men fully know that they are headed to battle somewhere-Europe or the South Pacific-very very soon. But they have to survive basic training, and each other's over the top personalities, first.

The central character, Eugene Jerome, acts as Neil Simon's self-portrait and the audience surrogate. We see this experience, the comic and the tragic, through his young eyes. And yon Elijah Zurek has marvelous comic timing in the role, and very few can do a slow burn facial expression better. He speaks directly to audience members, which lends a necessary intimacy. And the scene where he shares a bed with a prostitute is intentionally hilarious in the most uncomfortable of ways. The theatre at the JCC is small, which is perfect for this type of show, so we don't miss much. But I often felt Zurek's expressions, which sometimes became so extreme that they seem designed for a silent movie or a Little Rascals rerun, come across too exaggerated for the intimate setting, but the audience is on his side. Zurek is so damned likable and talented that we forgive any moment that seems forced or too stagey. He made me laugh in several instances, but I thought he sometimes leaned closer to the world of Sheldon Cooper than to Neil Simon's alter ego.

Eugene, our narrator, is not the most interesting in the show, nor should he be. There are a couple of candidates for that honor. Arnold Epstein, the group's intellectual outsider and the only Jew in the barracks aside from Eugene, certainly fits that bill. I didn't recognize Ryan Fisher at first, mainly because the last time I saw him onstage he was a chilling school shooter in Columbinus. Epstein is a different creation entirely. Sensitive yet strong, Epstein is terrifically blossomed to life by Fisher. There's a brief instance when he's told off by a bunkmate, and he gives the perfect reaction-a little kissy sound. It's those details that matter. And with Epstein, there's a secret or two inside of him, an egg that cannot be cracked. He's such a quirky outsider that Eugene even suspects him of being a homosexual (this being the 1940's where anything outside of the norm was questioned to be gay). He squarely doesn't belong in the army, but then again, he really doesn't belong anywhere outside of academia, a philosophizing square peg. And Fisher owns every moment he's onstage.

The other most interesting character is the sergeant himself, Toomey, who seems to have so much fun screwing with the privates' heads. Only Epstein can thwart him. But he delights in abusing his men, mind-f**king them at every turn; he's a sadist of sorts who gets off on his job. He reminds me of an old high school coach of mine who, if you threw-up during practice, made you do push-ups in your own puke. But Toomey may be worse, because he smiles shark-like throughout the show. And there's one scene where he lets down his guard and we see he's also a human being, not a caricature, and that's why Nick Noelte is so effective in the part. He jolts the show to the next level whenever he appears onstage. And his drunken final scene is an emotional ride, both scary and funny and, in the end, very sad.

Chris Cavazza could make a career playing parts like Don Carney, the crooner who dreams of being Perry Como. I think he's the anchor of the show, the focus in a way, of all of those men with dreams of greatness who wind up sad and lost. It's brilliant turn, and Cavazza's comedic timing is crackerjack. A mere look, or a turn of phrase, produced much laughter from the audience. And his voice is in tip-top shape, wonderfully crooning classics like "Blue Moon" and "Side by Side."

Shaun Memmel as Joseph Wykowski, the best soldier of the bunch but also a devout bigot, brings his usual strong angry vibe to the part. There are moments when his eyes dart from person to person that he looks like a World War 2 era Wile E. Coyote. But Memmel has elevated his art here. He has turned Wykowski into a sexual tsunami, gyrating at every word, grabbing his butt cheeks and fake-farting at every turn, dry-humping everything in sight. It's like war is his ultimate orgasm. It's the most physical and loose Memmel has ever been on stage, and to use a sexual metaphor, he nails the part.

Chris Cordero is quite a find as the other private, Roy Selridge, keeping neck and neck with Memmel and Cavazza's strong turns. He's amazingly fun to watch. And Cody Farkas is perfectly cast as James Hennessey, who in some ways is the group conscience until circumstances change. Farkas is so natural, so real, and at one point, so heartbreaking.

There are two female roles in BILOXI BLUES: The Gulf Port prostitute, Rowena, and the girl of Eugene's dreams, Daisy Hannigan. As Rowena, Rei Capote adds a major edge to the show, and her contrast both physically and verbally with the virginal Eugene makes for quite a memorable scene. And what she does with the hanky after blowing Eugene's nose is a masterful choice. And Keira Osborne is lovely as Daisy, the girl next door. Her brief moments onstage makes an impact on Eugene and on the audience.

Director Drew Eberhard's cast is uniformly strong, and you will laugh at them, be shocked by them, and best of all, understand them. But there's one moment in the show, however, that did not work for me at all for a variety of reasons. In the scene after Wykowski sneak-reads Eugene's journals and is about to confront the young writer about them, the cast all of a sudden out of nowhere starts menacingly crooning "In the Still of the Night" as they enter the scene. This may seem interesting in the concept stage,but it turned out so wrong in so many ways. First of all, it stops the stage action cold. Mr. Simon's words build with enough drama; we don't need this to add to the story. Also, "In the Still of the Night," a hit by the Five Satins, is from 1956, not the World War 2 era, and it's an anachronism that seems so out of place that I wondered what was going on. Since it's not in the script, what is the meaning of this bizarre addition and why? Do people want BILOXI BLUES to be turned into a Jukebox Musical?

But in the end, it's a show that works, that pleases audiences without compromise, and puts Simon smack-dab on the map of one of our nation's great dramatists. And with acting of this caliber, it is by far the best show that Vivid Productions has produced so far. BILOXI BLUES tells the story of how the Greatest Generation became the "Greatest," where even a little twig of a boy like Eugene would go overseas and, in their own ways, ultimately save the world.

There's one more performance of BILOXI BLUES at the JCC left-this Wednesday, where if you're a veteran you get 50% off the ticket price. Don't miss it.


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