Review: BANDSTAND at Playhouse On Park

Now on stage at Playhouse on Park through August 20th

By: Jul. 27, 2023
Review: BANDSTAND at Playhouse On Park
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The multi-award winning Broadway musical Bandstand has arrived at Playhouse on Park with bells on (That pun is for the horn section.) With music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert TaylorBandstand is set just after the end of World War II. It tells the story about a group of six veterans and a war widow who struggle to cope and find their way back to normal lives. Battling survivor’s guilt, amongst other excruciating mental and physical ailments, they turn to music and form a band with the goal of winning a national song contest.

Sounds like a depressing premise, doesn’t it? Rest assured: Playhouse on Park’s Bandstand is rewarding and uplifting featuring phenomenal music and impactful performances. There are moments of true beauty that aren’t to be missed.

I rushed into the Sunday matinee and was pleasantly surprised to see a fuller house, compared to past productions. Though a select few of the audience members might not have appeared enthusiastic (I’m looking at you, napper in the front row), the majority of us were enthralled and enlivened. At Intermission, I texted my friends, whom I had invited to come along, but passed for a variety of reasons. “You missed out. You would have loved this.”

Tony-award winning Bandstand: The New American Musical (Bandstand) opened on Broadway in 2017 to mixed reviews, from critics, and only lasted 5 months. Some critics found it predictable, but I wholeheartedly disagree and found the material refreshing and moving. Though, perhaps I am swayed by the especially strong cast who delivered a genuinely impactful and superb performance. It also doesn’t hurt that the performers are absolutely stunning: Beautiful artists with magnificent, unique voices.

Let’s meet the band of Bandstand:

Benjamin Nurthen, plays Donald Novinski, the pianist and bandleader. He owns the role and his beautiful high notes soar with such incredible ease.

Dan Jantson is fantastic and fast crowd-favorite as forgetful drummer Johnny Simpson, whose oft-told story of his Jeep flipping three times never truly gets old.

Katie Luke is a standout as Julia, the war widow who becomes the band’s featured singer. Katie Luke virtuosically maneuvers between genres with an an angelic Dona Nobis Requiem to powerhouse jazz on the bandstand, stunning the audience with her truly out-of-this-world voice, poise, and heartfelt performance.

Mindy Cassle is a light in the darkness, playing Julia’s mother, with excellent comic timing, and makes great moments that aren’t written which absolutely delight.

Chris Haley plays Wayne Wright, the uptight, germophobic trombonist struggling with suicidal thoughts, and delivers a genuinely profound standout performance. His heart really shined through the character and soaring high harmonies were beautiful.

Jack Theiling returns to Playhouse on Park (Indecent) and rounds out the group with smooth harmonies as the networking saxophonist, Jimmy Campbell.

John Elliott, as the jaded trumpet teacher Nick Radel, brightens the stage with perfect comedic timing and his powerful voice.

Davy Zlatic is a standout, commanding the stage in his Playhouse on Park debut as the lovable lush of a double bassist, Alan Mendez. I couldn’t get enough of his velvety voice and his character’s off-color jokes simply fly and land with ease.

The strong ensemble is lead by dance captain James Felton II, who tugs our heart strings as Michael, and features Tiara Greene, Jerry Hamilton, LeVane Harrington, Stephen C. Kallas, Emma Luxembourg, Declan Smith, Julia Solecki, and Alexis Yard.

Many elements of this production are commendable. The music direction by Melanie Guerin, is top-notch. The big band sound is truly captivating: the actors pull double-duty, since they are portraying musicians, and they are supported by a nicely balanced off-stage pit of nine. The balancing was perfect and it was a fantastic performance. The rotating stage miraculously transports us from the front lines of World War II to the a vibrant bandstand in Cleveland, Ohio with ease. Especially impressive sound design, by Kirk Ruby, showcases the full range and tones of actor’s voices magnificently. Lighting design by Jackson Funke supports the actors and story without obtruding. Initially, I didn’t fully appreciate the dream ballet style elements, but the choreography (by Darlene Zoller and Robert Mintz) supports the story in an elegant and profound way.

During intermission, a few people approached me to make small talk, who noticed my note taking, and mentioned that the show felt a bit long. I will say that the material itself is sometimes gratuitous, but Director Sean Harris keeps things moving and fresh. Perhaps these audience members wanted to assist in my writing by supplying criticism, but all notion of that was dispelled when they leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. Leaving the theater, all I could hear were praises for the absolutely phenomenally talented cast.

Bandstand runs through August 20th and, frankly, you don’t want to miss this one.


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