Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set just after the war in 1945, Private First Class Donny Novitski, who is still grieving over the death of his best friend Michael in combat, returns home to Cleveland after serving four years in the Army. He rediscovers his love for music when he persuades some fellow veterans to form a band to enter a nationwide song competition that will honor the troops. Donny meets Michael's widow Julia, whom he promised Michael he'd look in on if something happened to him, but he has had difficulties in finding the nerve to see her since he's afraid of what she might ask him about how Michael died. He convinces Julia to join the group as their female singer. This group of strangers uses the bond they form in the creation of the band as a way to heal the wounds of war while also finding a way to move on from their pasts.
Andy Blankenbuehler won a Tony for his choreography for Hamilton and he also won a Tony for his high flying, swing-era dances for Bandstand. Blankenbuehler also directed the original Broadway production, and tour director Gina Rattan
The upbeat jazz and swing-infused score, with music by Richard Oberacker and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Oberacker, features engaging, period perfect music that harkens back to the big band era, along with songs in the style of the Great American Songbook. There are numerous numbers that move the plot along while introducing characters and also several well-composed ballads. The simple but fairly effective book by Taylor and Oberacker does an excellent job of weaving their engaging songs around a fast and moving plot, and it fleshes out the characters of Donny and Julia.
However, the book doesn't quite do justice to the other members of the band, who are not written as fully three-dimensional characters. While Blankenbuehler finds a stunning, theatrical way to depict the ghosts of the dead soldiers who continually haunt Donny and his fellow vets, Taylor and Oberacker struggle in the second act in not giving much resolution to, or further clarifying, the band member's struggles with PTSD. They simple have the supporting characters repeat lines of how constant drink or the thought of suicide are always prevalent instead of further fleshing out these broken men. I also wish the book allowed Julia to truly show her emotions over the loss of her husband. We never once see her cry over the loss, instead she is written as somewhat steely in her resolve to find the truth of what happened to him. The first act is terrific in creating conflict and tension and allowing the audience to truly feel for these men, but the second act doesn't quite provide resolution for the bitter reality of what these men are going through. Also, one character seems to forgive another much too quickly for something horrible that happened. For a story that focuses on the horrors of war and how a group of soldiers find a way to fight their demons through music, the ending, while upbeat, should also find you fighting back tears, but I'm a fairly emotional guy and didn't shed a single tear at the end.
Fortunately, this non-Equity touring cast is excellent. Not only do they each create unique portrayals, but those who play the members of the band are also adept at playing their own instruments. Zack Zaromatidis does an exceptional job in depicting the shell-shocked, troubled and cocky Donny. Through a beautifully layered portrayal, we see how Donny still has hope in finding a way to adapt to his new life after returning home from overseas, even though the trauma and angst of his combat experience is still fresh and raw in his mind. Zaromatidis infuses the part with so much passion and pain that it's hard not to feel for the character and hope he finds a way to tackle the demons in his past. Zaromatidis' singing voice is clear and powerful, especially on his solo "Just Like It Was Before," which beautiful balances Donny's pain and his inherit optimism.
As Julia, Jennifer Elizabeth Smith beautifully portrays the similar pain and hope that Donny feels, yet with Julia it's in trying to find a way to survive in her new life without her husband. Smith skillfully shows us how Julia just wants to know what happened to Michael and for things to go back to how they were before. Smith brings confidence and an assured nature to the part and we see how Julia's independence grows through her involvement with Donny and the band. Smith's singing voice is bright and clear and she injects a large dose of empathy into her soulful and soaring vocal delivery.
In supporting roles, Roxy York adds a good dose of humor as Julia's mother, and Jonmichael Tarleton, Rob Clove, Benjamin Powell, Louis Jannuzzi III, and Scott Bell are all excellent, with superb musical abilities, as the members in the band.
Bandstand may not be an entirely perfect musical but it is quite inspirational and engaging, with many rousing, upbeat dance numbers and lush music. It also does a good job in depicting how the trauma and horrors of war impact a group of soldiers and how music has the power to heal.
Bandstand runs through December 8, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 W Adams Street, Phoenix AZ. Information on this show and upcoming Broadway at the Orpheum shows can be found at www.americantheatreguild.com/phoenix/. For more information on the tour, visit bandstandbroadway.com.
Book and Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, Music by