It’s not often that a review begins with a lengthy discussion about a set design, a stage manager and a backstage crew, but all three contributed significantly to a rather unusual opening at Meadow Brook Theatre this past Saturday night.
If nothing else, that performance of “Biloxi Blues” proved there’s nothing like having a quick-thinking team of professionals both on stage and off when a potential catastrophe strikes.
It all began with a rather ingenious scenic design by Pavlo Bosyy. Taking his cue from the opening and closing scenes of the Neil Simon comedy, Bosyy installed a set of railroad tracks across the front of the stage over which large sections of the performance area are wheeled in and out as needed. Such a unique concept allows set changes to occur almost instantaneously, as the moving platforms are pre-equipped with whatever props, costumes and set-pieces are required in the following scene. The actors, then, simply walk from the stationary, upstage army barracks to the newly-arrived set to continue the story with little or no interruption.
It all worked exceptionally well throughout the first act. But as one longtime artistic director noted later: The more moving parts a set has, the more likely you are to have problems. And early in the second act, one of the platforms derailed.
Swift response by stage manager Tim Jacobs and his rugged crew helped avert disaster. They tugged and they shoved – and they swiftly and efficiently moved to “Plan B” when the stubborn equipment refused to budge. And when their Herculean efforts finally paid off – twice, since the platform later failed a second time – the team was rewarded with a well-earned round of applause from a much appreciative audience. (I suspect first-time Meadow Brook director Christopher Bremer was sweating bullets the whole time, however.)
Nothing seemed to faze the actors; they simply adjusted to the crisis and kept going.
In particular, Jason Richards- who seems to be making a career out of playing Eugene Morris Jerome at various theaters around town – looked totally oblivious to the crew members behind him as they generated all sorts of noise while he delivered a monologue. (Did anyone listen to him, I wondered? All eyes were focused on the movers.)
It’s that type of response in a moment of crisis that separates the professionals from everyone else. And I expected nothing less from Bremer’s outstanding cast.
The middle chapter of the playwright’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the unflappable and always delightful Richards shines as the innocent and naive New Yorker who is sent for basic training to a southern boot camp during World War II.
Army life also provides Eugene with a set of bunkmates who give him much fodder for his upcoming profession. But wisely, director Bremer allows his actors to march beyond the easy stereotypes and quick one-liners playwright Simon offers them.
Patrick Moltane gives depth to the racist Wykowski who hates both Jews and blacks alike, while you can’t help but smile at the not-so-bright Selridge as played by Rusty Mewha. And Mark Halpin as crazy Sgt. Toomey doesn’t just yell at his young charges to instill discipline in them; he enjoys toying with their fears and insecurities.
Plus, longtime Earth Woman Judy Dery gets even earthier as the understanding hooker who takes Eugene’s virginity.
But it’s Dax Anderson who plumbs the full range of emotions as the Jewish intellectual Epstein who openly challenges the sergeant to prove there’s a better way to mold his disarrayed unit into a cohesive team.
A few minor problems haunted the performance, however. Regional accents came and went throughout, and the actors need to be in synch when bouncing about the railroad cars. And too much noise came from backstage during the crisis-free first act.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester. Wed.-Sun., through March 9. Tickets: $22-$38. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbtheatre.com