BWW Review: BANDSTAND at Popejoy Hall
Bandstand kicked off its first national tour at Popejoy Hall with an energizing and heartfelt performance on November 1, 2019. With music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, the Tony Award winning Broadway musical tells the poignant and inspiring tale of American soldiers who have come home from World War II in1945. Bandstand explores the lives of these veterans as they struggle with adjusting to life after coming home "shell shocked". Private First Class Donny Novitski, a singer and songwriter, finds a lifeline in a national competition to find the nation's next musical superstars. To enter the competition, Donny creates a band comprised of fellow veterans who are each struggling in their own ways after the war. Through the bonds formed as members of the band, as well as the music itself, they find new purpose in life.
As Donny Notvitski, the leader of the band and the person who is trying to help everyone to continue fighting their day to day battles even after they've returned from war, Zack Zaromatidis is a commanding presence onstage. He is able to express the struggle that Notvitski is under on a regular basis - a man who hardly ever sleeps, plagued with survivor's guilt and dreams of the battle where he lost his best friend - in a way that allows the audience to really connect with his character's struggle. However, Notvitski still has hope that his life can be better than what it is and Zaromatidis is able to express this hope in a believable way. While there is hope in Donny's life, the battles he still has to fight are evident ("Donny Notvitski", "Just Like It Was Before"). As Julia Trojan, Jennifer Elizabeth Smith is able to capture perfectly Julia's struggle with the life she has now as a widow versus the life she once had ("Who I Was"), as well as the difficulty she has understanding the place that the veterans in the Donny Novo band are coming from. Her performance in the show-stopping "Welcome Home," wherein Julia sings about the toll that the war has had on each of her bandmates, makes the song that much more impactful. The rest of the veterans (Rob Clove as Jimmy Campbell, Benjamin Powell as Davy Zlatic, Scott Bell as Nick Radel, Louis Jannuzzi III as Wayne Wright, and Jonmichael Tarleton as Johnny Simpson) each give moving and heartfelt performances as they fight their own demons once they're home. Each of the actors in Bandstand make it clear that while the war may be over, there are more battles to be won. The chemistry between all of the actors enhanced the sense of brotherhood the characters had, making the relationships all the more believable.
Along with the incredible performances, the directing by Gina Rattan as well as the set design and choreography by Marc Heitzman helped to set the scene. At times, the choreography added to the impact of the internal struggle of each of the veterans, including Donny playing piano while being surrounded by the bodies of fallen soldiers, some of them even draped on the piano keys themselves. The presence of the fallen soldiers are always there, often dancing in the background while the main part of the scene occurs. In another scene, the disconnect Wayne experiences from his family and his inability to be the father his children remember is evident through staging and how he is literally separated from that aspect of his life. In addition, having the actors play the respective instruments of the characters live on stage makes the show even more entertaining.
Adding to the emotional impact of the show, this production of Bandstand had many veterans and their families in attendance. Watching them react and interact with the musical added anotherlayer of depth all the while showing how important theatre can be. There were several people in the audience who had never been to a production at Popejoy Hall but were enthusiastic to attend this one. At times, during speeches the characters onstage would give about what it means to be a veteran, the audience erupted into cheers and clapping. The energy as the audience and cast interacted with one another was almost palpable and seemed to just increase the enjoyment of the production for everyone in attendance.
While Bandstand deals with a very heavy subject and the veterans' struggles are portrayed in a very real and thoughtful way, there is a sense of joy and hope to the production as well. This helps the audience leave Bandstand feeling upbeat and uplifted. It is a wonderful tribute to veterans, all the while being an entertaining piece of theatre. Bandstand is a wonderfully moving show that is not soon forgotten. It was obvious the musical had a lasting impact on the audience at Popejoy Hall.
Image source Michael Pool