BWW Review: BANDSTAND at Yardley Hall
Stopping only for one night on December 17, Johnson County Community College presented a new Broadway style musical called BANDSTAND in Yardley Hall. All told, BANDSTAND is a very good show and worth seeing should it come through again. It is one of those shows that aspires to be great, but doesn't quite get there.
In this case, falling just a little short is a shame because the direction and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler are both exquisite and complex, the cast is outstanding, and the music is pretty darn good. Blankenbuehler won the 2018 Tony for choreography. This non-equity, first ever tour, is a quality rendering recreated by Gina Rattan.
Set just following the conclusion of World War II mainly in Cleveland OH, BANDSTAND tells the story of a group of U.S. veterans attempting to reintegrate into society after discharge from service. Former soldier Donny Novitski (Zack Zaromatidis) is the male lead.
The show opens with a combat vignette of the closing days of the war in the Pacific. We find Donny and his friend Michael as they attempt to take a Japanese position at night under heavy fire. It is difficult to see what is happening, except to sense deadly combat. Michael dies in the chaos.
The war is over. Donny has been discharged and returns to Cleveland. Before the war, Donny had been something of a musical prodigy. He expects to pick up where he left off prior to Pearl Harbor, but the world has changed. Work (especially for a musician) is hard to come by.
Donny has another problem. Michael had had a young wife, Julia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith), and Donny has promised his buddy to look in on her. Donny feels responsible for Michael's death and can't bring himself to face her.
That's almost all the setup. Desperate for work, Donny hears about a musical contest to honor returning servicemen. Think of a modern reality TV show. The prize is national exposure and a chance to make a motion picture. Donny decides to recruit super musicians who are all vets and solve his employment challenge. He girds up his courage and knocks on Julia's apartment door and she just happens to be not only a knock-out lady, but also a super band singer.
Oh, and there are three more things. Each of the vet band members is dragging home their own war baggage. Julia can't quite get past the death of Michael without hearing all the details from Donny. And the production company of the contest leaves out significant contest details that threaten to steal all the rights that should go to the talent winners.
The bottom line is that this show is super intense. In a way, it reminds me of an excellent film " Best Years Of Our Lives" from 1946 that addressed many of the same issues for the "Greatest Generation." The film won seven Oscars including a best supporting actor nod for Harold Anderson. Anderson was an actual veteran who had lost both arms during his service. " Best Years" addressed only three veterans and their challenges. BANDSTAND attempts to address seven major characters, Julia's runaway father, and corporate greed. The major difficulty is that by the end of the show (despite a positive ending) the audience is exhausted.
The JCCC audience wanted desperately to embrace BANDSTAND. The cast was super. The singers are all top notch. There are two bands. One is in the pit and the second as actors on stage. Dancers are as good as they get. The direction is set up so that BANDSTAND is as much a ballet as musical theater. This is tough stuff. Timing is everything. Every entrance and scene change is crisp and deliberate.
It turns out that a veteran's group called "Got Your 6" reached out to the authors while the show was in development. The organization is dedicated to the notion that former service members should be represented more accurately in film and on stage. Playwrights Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor appear to have taken their counsel. The "Got Your 6" organization certified BANDSTAND as meeting the organization's goals.
Great intentions may have overwhelmed the final product. The Broadway production of BANDSTAND opened on April 26, 2017 and closed on September 17, 2017. Perhaps an aspiration pared back a bit could yet make this a super show for the playwrights, patriots who served their country, and audiences who will want to see it for years into the future.