So often for people affected by war, the battles don’t end with one side’s victory. This harsh reality is examined in the winning and moving musical “Bandstand,” playing through March 8th at the National Theatre. It explores the agony of loss and the cathartic power of music and truth.
“Bandstand” begins with musician Donny Novitski (Zack Zaromatidis) returning from WWII. He immediately finds that it’s much more difficult to find work than before the war, and is warned by a fellow ex-soldier to make sure he finds something fast, insinuating that those who don’t soon fall prey to the shadows that followed them home from the fight. He then hears an exciting announcement- NBC is running a nationwide contest to find the next hit song and support the returning troops. Donny gets an idea- create a band with all servicemen members to compete in the contest! He starts with Jimmy Campbell (Rob Clove), a gifted saxophone player who has, for the moment, given up music to study the law. Once convinced, he suggests Davy Zlatic (Benjamin Powell who always delivers on his bass, a joke, or a drink, who then recommends surly trumpet teacher Nick Radel (Scott Bell). He then leads them to obsessive-compulsive trombone player Wayne Wright (Louis Jannuzzi III), who brings in drummer Johnny Simpson (Jonmichael Tarleton,) who has a damaged brain but a heart of gold. While these men start to find their way, there still seems to be something missing.
The show itself is both joyous and heartbreaking; buoyant and moving. The music ranges from toe-tapping to ballad and back again, giving real life to this story and the characters.
The missing piece is found when Donny makes good on a promise he made to his fallen friend Michael to check in on his wife, Julia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith). After having dinner with her and her mother, June (Roxy York), Donny finds out that Julia is a singer. Once he convinces her to join the “Donny Nova Band,” as he renames it, they are off and running. But will their heart be enough to win a nationwide contest? And what is the secret that Donny is carrying that makes him unable to sleep?
“Bandstand” opened on Broadway on April 26, 2017, and ran for 166 performances. It was directed and choreographed by Andy Blakenbuehler, who has won multiple Tony awards for his choreography; perhaps most notably for his work with the musical juggernaut “Hamilton.” During the development of the show, writers Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor received feedback from the “Got Your 6” organization to ensure that Bandstand was an accurate portrayal of WWII veterans. This led to a discussion between real veterans and the cast, engaging the cast and crew on how to avoid stereotypes and create characters that resemble real people. The collaboration with “Got Your 6” resulted in Bandstand being the first theater production to be 6 Certified for the show’s reasonable and accurate veteran portrayals.
The show itself is both joyous and heartbreaking; buoyant and moving. The music ranges from toe-tapping to ballad and back again, giving real life to this story and the characters. Zaromatidis is electric in the lead role, deftly able to deliver the comedic beats, dramatic deliveries, with a soaring voice and demanding physicality. The 2nd song in the show, “Donny Novitski,” is essentially just him singing to the audience and could be lackluster is the performer wasn’t incredibly charismatic. Luckily for the audience at the National, Zaromatidis has charisma enough for two and the talent to back it up. He is equally matched in the talent department by Smith, who turns in an emotional performance as war-widow Julia. Her gorgeous soprano soars in this score, particularly in the haunting “Welcome Home” and the melancholy “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.”
The rest of the band also impressed, playing each of their instruments live on stage. All 5 were incredibly accomplished on their instruments while creating 3 dimensional characters as well. Clove was soft-spokenly commanding as the glue that held this ragtag group together, and Powell was able to walk a fine line of cracking the audience up with his multiple bawdy jokes, but then evokes empathy as the audience begins to see how he is using comedy and alcohol to keep his demons at bay. Jannuzzi also delivers a fully fleshed out man, whose trauma manifests in obsessive behavior. He shows how this affects his life without it becoming a caricature. Finally, Tarleton is charming as Johnny, playing a man with a serious injury, but who has decided not to let it envelop him. As his character says, “he can’t remember; maybe he was the lucky one.” The closing number of Act I, “Right this Way,” was exquisitely performed by these 7 performers and gave this reviewer chills. They took a powerful song and sent it through the stratosphere.
York absolutely steals every scene she appears in and is a hilarious addition to the cast. Her voice is also excellent- clear and commanding. But like the rest of the cast, she can also handle the more serious subject matter required by the piece, especially in her Act II song “Everything Happens.” The ensemble also delivered dynamic performances, especially in the dance department. They executed Blakenbuehler’s choreography expertly, infusing both joy and despair into the movement in turn. The dance vignettes between each scene also helped move the action along and keep the audience fully engaged.
The set was kept the same for most of the show, using smaller pieces to change scene, which allowed the show to keep a brisk pace (David Korins, Scenic Design). There were also a huge number of costumes, all of which needed to be period appropriate. Paloma Young did a fantastic job not only designing beautiful costumes, but also ones that could accommodate all of the rigorous dance moves. All in all the show is a beautiful and honest look at a group of people realizing that while maybe their lives can never be what they were before, they can lean each other to find a way to move forward.
The performance I saw was particularly moving, as TAPS (an organization that supports the families of fallen soldiers) had a group in the audience, as well as the presence of many veterans. The cast had also had the opportunity earlier in the day to visit the monuments to the fallen American soldiers mere miles from the theatre where they would portray their stories on stage. You could see the impact this visit and the audience members had on the cast at different points, but most notably at the end of the number “Welcome Home,” when Smith had real tears in her eyes as the audience gave them an extended round of applause at the number’s conclusion. Also, Zaromatidis lead the cast after bows in acknowledging the vets and military families in the audience, thanking them for their service and sacrifices. It was a fitting end to a powerful theatrical experience.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Advisory- this show has some adult language and situations, so it is recommended for audiences of at least 13 and older.
“Bandstand” is now playing at the National Theatre through Sunday, March 8th. For more information on tickets, click here.