BWW Review: BANDSTAND at Broadway In Thousand Oaks Has All The Right Moves But Something Is Out Of Tune.
The musical Bandstand, which is now part of the American Theater Guild tour across the country, thrives when Andy Blankenbuehler's Tony-winning choreography is front and center. Restaged for this production by Marc Heitzman, who was Dance Captain in the Broadway production, the dances display vitality that makes audiences want to stand up and join in. The book and score do not hold up their end of the bargain, and in this production, Bandstand is further saddled with lackluster performances that should have been re-enlivened by tour director Gina Rattan.
Donny Novitski (Zack Zaromatidis) returns to Cleveland after watching his best pal die in Manilla during a strategic WWII battle. Praying for a reason to justify his being the survivor, he creates a band out of veterans with the goal of winning a national contest and the chance to be featured in a major motion picture. Donny makes good on his promise to his pal by checking in on the widow, Julia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith). Julia has an outstanding singing voice and Donny begs her to join the band as his co-singer. Despite both's guilt, they find themselves drawn to each other more than just musically.
Bandstand, which played on Broadway for 24 previews and 166 performances, is an ambitious but tricky show. Handling the effects of PTSD in World War II veterans is a tall order for a musical, and the book by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor (who also co-wrote the lyrics), never raises the characters beyond clichés. The music by Oberacker contains one juggernaut, the musically adventurous showstopper "Love Will Come and Find Me Again," several solid songs and one a-tonal number "Everything Happens" that is meant to be illuminating but just sounds off to the ear. Oberacker does cleverly use percussion to simulate the bombs in Donny's fragile mind.
Director Rattan starts the production on a sore note with a flashback scene in the trenches which is disorienting, cacophonous, and hard to hear. Rattan also allows her cast to be lethargic throughout the matinee performance. Several of the performers rely on hand gestures for every line which feels distracting and unnatural. Rob Clove, who plays the trumpeter Jimmy, punctuates with his hands so much, he's exhausting when not holding a trumpet.
Smith has a striking voice as the heroine and generates sympathy immediately. She is a genuine find and it's obvious why her character would become the toast of post-war America. Zaromatidis does not match his colleague's energy. His singing voice is tentative, and he finds himself straining for his upper register. All the six band members (Zaromatidis, Clove, Benjamin Powell, Scott Bell, Louis Jannuzzi III, Jonmichael Tarleton) perform their own instruments and are exuberant when they play. Of those supporting characters, Tarleton brings the most pathos as the soldier who returned from war with a brain injury. His cadence makes clear the consternation in his head, but his attitude exemplifies someone who's a survivor. Roxy York, playing Smith's mother, seems to have wandered in from a completely different play, one set in the Borsch Belt. Overbearing and over-animated, her character never clicks.
It's Blankenbuehler's choreography that makes Bandstand sizzle. Based on the dance styles, he appears to be influenced by the great George Balanchine and Jack Cole. The dance integrates into the story with the ensemble creating a mood even when moving furniture around the stage.
The costumes by Paloma Young evokes the flavor of the swing era. Jeff Croiter's lighting captures the PTSD from which the soldiers suffer, by suggesting the smoke of the bombs that would have bombarded them throughout the war. David Korins' set remains in a well decorated swing club only to become more abstract with crafty art deco models when the characters go to New York.
Ambitious but unsatisfying, Bandstand does have potential in exploring the horrors our soldiers face in foreign lands, battling an enemy whose only goal is to kill them. A more sophisticated score and nuanced book may have allowed Bandstand to hit the right notes.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Bandstand at Broadway In Thousand Oaks has closed, but the National Tour continues in other cities. Check the website for more details. https://americantheatreguild.com/