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‘Bandstand’ hits all the right notes at the Morris Center

| Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Jazz and nightclubs, swing dancing and radio contests: these are probably not the hallmarks of World War II narratives — and with good reason. The recent Broadway musical “Bandstand,” however, embraces the unexpected in its synthesis of music, dance and devastatingly candid storytelling.

This past weekend, South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center presented the Broadway national tour of the musical “Bandstand.” Composed by Richard Oberacker with a book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, “Bandstand” premiered on Broadway as part of the 2017 season. The national tour began in October, and will continue through the summer.

The plot of “Bandstand” centers around pianist and songwriter Donny Novitski (Zack Zaromatidis), a Cleveland-born veteran recently returned from service in the Second World War, who puts together a band composed of WWII veterans and war widow Julia Trojan (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) in order to win the American Songbook’s “Tribute to the Troops” songwriting competition.

The strength of “Bandstand” lies in its unexpected darkness. A powerful and ruthlessly honest portrait of the veteran experience and transition to civilian life, “Bandstand” is far from the feel-good All-American fluff piece one might expect it to be. The musical is, in fact, a scathing indictment of the glorification of war and a devastating expression of trauma and loss. The show’s 1940s jazz and big band score sheds the romantic idealism associated with the musical era and instead embraces the music as an expression of the frenzied, confusing and devastating experience of returning home from war. The score is equally entertaining and moving, complex in both orchestration and emotion.

What is most striking about the production is Andy Blankenbuehler’s Tony Award-winning choreography and its haunting manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dance in “Bandstand” most powerfully represents the ghosts of fallen soldiers and flashbacks to traumatic moments that haunt the characters; moments such as the now almost iconic “piano push” make the internal public, welcoming the audience into the minds of the tortured veterans.

The touring cast of “Bandstand” is, for the most part, remarkably talented. The principal actors impressively play their instruments live, in addition to delivering powerful acting and vocal performances. Largely made up of actors under the age of 25, the production’s young cast emphasizes the tragic youth of the military in this era. This is, in my opinion, a great improvement from the considerably older original Broadway company.

Zaromatidis is stunning as Donny, both determined and haunted in his portrayal of the band leader. His subtlety and range prove he is undoubtedly a star in the making, and that is without even mentioning his outstanding vocal ability.

Another standout performance is Louis Jannuzzi III as the compulsively organized former marine Wayne Wright. Both Zaromatidis and Jannuzzi have the impressive ability to take control of the stage, gripping the audience’s attention and delivering the most captivating performances of the show.

“I Know A Guy,” one of the musical’s opening numbers, follows Donny through his search for veteran musicians, building until it reaches a musically chilling conclusion. The song brings the main cast of characters together, but more importantly illustrates the widespread effect of war on a community, demonstrating the fact that everyone in Cleveland “knows a guy” who served. Other standouts include the act one closer “Right This Way,” which blew the audience back with its raw emotion, and the heart-breaking finale “Welcome Home,” which received a well-deserved mid-show standing ovation.

“Bandstand” in its construction entices audiences to buy into the oft-embraced idealistic romance of the World War II era, then exposes them to their hypocrisy. In an era in which patriotism is often equated with intolerance, “Bandstand” proves that exposing propagandistic messaging can be synonymous with national pride. While shows like “Bandstand” are being written and performed, musical theatre proves itself to be both entertaining and socially relevant.

The national tour of “Bandstand” runs through early June. They will next be appearing in Pembroke, North Carolina. More information can be found on bandstandbroadway.com. The cast album for “Bandstand” is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music and Amazon.

Show: “Bandstand the Musical”

Director: Andy Blankenbuehler

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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