BWW Review: BANDSTAND at Lied Center For The Performing Arts, Lincoln
BANDSTAND, an original musical about World War 11 veterans returning home, took the stage for the first time in Nebraska at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln. It ran for five months on Broadway in 2017 to mixed reviews. The main criticisms centered on plot and character development. I have to agree.
Richard Oberacker (music and lyrics) and Robert Taylor (book and lyrics) undertook the challenge of incorporating post war trauma with upbeat swing music. The result could come off as bipolar; however, in this case the resulting production never swung far enough in either direction to make it interesting. It remained somewhere in between.
When Donny Novitski (Zack Zaromatidis) returns home to Cleveland from the war, he can't get a gig in any of his old clubs. When he hears of a "Tribute to the Troops" swing band competition, he finds veterans who play instruments to form a band. I Know a Guy is a clever way to introduce each of these musicians who actually do play their instruments on stage, supplemented by the orchestra in the pit. Each veteran/musician has his own war story with accompanying scars. However, their characters are not fleshed out enough to make me care. Suffering from alcoholism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic pain, and memories of imprisonment-- what could be intense emotional stories are merely alluded to.
Donny, who suffers from survivor's guilt, keeps a promise to his best friend who died at his side in friendly fire. Donny looks up his widow, Julia Trojan (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) and asks her to join his band when he discovers she can sing. Besides having a killer voice (I thought Smith sounded like Laura Osnes when I first heard her only to discover that Osnes was the original Julia on Broadway), Smith adds a bright spot to the cast. This couple with dynamite vocals and looks follows the expected plot of best friend falls for best friend's widow.
Supplementing the romantic part of the story, Julia's mother, June (Roxy York) provides comic relief. She also sings beautifully with a rich tone.
The musical score is most memorable for Welcome Home (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith and Zack Zaromatidis) and Love Will Come and Find Me Again (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith). The true winner is not the music, though. It's the choreography.
I became a fan of Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography when I saw HAMILTON. He deserves the Tony Award for his work in BANDSTAND as well. The dancing is quick and lively. He throws in a few unusually moving scenes such as one in which soldiers clad in their "wife-beaters" hang onto the piano as Zaromatidis plays, or another where the soldiers plant their hands on the shoulders of the ones in front of them. These paint poignant pictures of the interdependency of soldiers in battle.
The contrast between soldiers in loud battle and the serenity of a woman arranging flowers is moving. But there are too few of these depictions of war torn soldiers to make me feel their pain. The deeper feelings are lost in jitterbugging feet and the quest for a win in a superficial contest.
Although I didn't love the plot or character development, the production itself is lovely. The voices are great. The dancing is entertaining and it is especially gratifying watching an Omaha native, Katie Pohlman, on stage.
To top it off, the Lied acknowledging the veterans in the audience was a very nice touch!
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel