One of the joys of vacation travel is to immerse oneself in the culture of the region. This may be as simple as dining at local eateries or sampling locally-brewed craft beers. Another fun pursuit is to attend community theatre, where actors, directors, musicians, and other crew all grew up in the community, where they may have attended school together, or sang in the same church choirs.
Palm Canyon Theatre sits at the north end of downtown Palm Springs, California. It was converted from the Frances S. Stevens School, an institution that earned the placement of an historical marker mounted next to the front door. The theater is barely noticeable save for the marquee out front, announcing the latest performances. Inside, the spacious auditorium seats 220 patrons. A full sound, light, and projection system offers an immersive theater experience.
Palm Canyon Theatre is the right size venue for this town. This final night’s performance of “Biloxi Blues” plays to a packed house. Patrons are mostly locals. The denizens of Palm Springs are a refreshing symbiosis of the distinctive communities that the town has become known for. Other than ourselves, we could not identify anyone of the “tourist class”. Considering downtown Palm Springs’ whole economy is built on tourism, we can only wonder whether this idea of sampling local culture is a completely original idea(!).
If you are not already familiar with “Biloxi Blues”, it is the second installment of Neil Simon’s “Eugene trilogy” — which starts with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and ends with “Broadway Bound”. “Biloxi Blues” tells the story of Eugene Morris Jerome (played by Fabrizio Ibanez), who heads off to Army basic training in Biloxi, MS. Mississippi is, of course, as foreign to a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn as would be a small town in France. If we think that Eugene is the proverbial “fish-out-of-water”, we have yet to meet his five bunkmates.
Ben Van Dijk plays Arnold Epstein, a stubborn, principled, haughty individual whose main weakness is his temperamental gastrointestinal system. Samuel David, as Wykowski, is disciplined, conscientious, and loyal. The perfect recruit. Frank Barrera plays Carney, a laid back, unconcerned dreamer. Sabastian Reda’s Selridge oozes confidence and has a quick, albeit lame, wit. His jokes fall flat but he does not seem to mind. Matthew Pichler’s Hennesey is a compassionate, reluctant loner.
Arguably the best performance comes from Richard Marlow as Sgt. Marwin J. Tooney, a tough and hard-drinking taskmaster who is stuck in a place he has long ago tired of. He hands out discipline not with sadistic joy, but with bitter resentment. And rounding out the cast are Erika Aleman as Rowena, a local Biloxi sex worker, and Katelyn Compton as Daisy, who is one of Biloxi’s more refined young ladies. These last two are essentially two sides of the same coin. Eugene courts both women but for different reasons. Need we say more?
The show does not revolve around Eugene, rather it blends the experiences of the six recruits, who are coming into manhood, each in his own way, during the abrupt entry of the United States into World War II. Sergeant Tooney provides the friction needed to bring the boys together in a short lived camaraderie where, at least for the time being, the enemy is Tooney himself.
Aside from the standout performance by Richard Marlow, the other actors, all a generation younger than Marlow, carry their own with authentic regional, working-class accents and strongly etched personalities. As this is a Neil Simon play, comic timing is essential. This is accomplished effortlessly and without detracting from our immersion in the story. These are well-practiced young performers who could easily migrate their talents to larger venues.
The closing night performance ends with the cast engaging in a heartfelt group hug. We recall that this is community theatre and the performers all have spent much of their youth, if not their whole lives, in this tight knit community. The scene is the perfect ending to this show’s run at the Palm Canyon Theatre.
Starting September 30th and running through October 16th (2022) is “Titanic — The Musical”. Considering that the most iconic depictions of this historic event included one of the most memorable musical scores in movie history, it is not a great leap to imagine a really spectacular musical version. After seeing the Palm Canyon Theatre’s version of “Biloxi Blues”, we would expect nothing less. If you happen to be passing through Palm Springs, treat yourself to an evening at the theater.