Monday, August 7, 2023

Bandstand - Playhouse on Park

Before I begin my review, let me applaud Playhouse on Park for producing a challenging, unfamiliar, yet rewarding show. Bandstand ran for only 166 performances on Broadway in Spring 2017 and had no national tour.  While other theaters in the state mount the same, well-worn titles, Playhouse offers something different and refreshing.  Now the review…


The musical Bandstand, playing at Playhouse on Park through August 20, is top notch musical theater.  The production is first rate with a knockout performance by lead Katie Luck as Julia Trojan, a grieving widow finding love and a renewed vigor for life. 


The story focuses on Donny Novitski, who has just returned from a horrifying stint on the Solomon Islands during WW II.  A musician, desperately seeking work in the clubs of Cleveland, he finally finds direction through a song contest that could change his life.  He quickly puts together a tight combo of war veterans to help him fulfill his dream.  Each has been physically or psychologically impacted by their experiences overseas.  This set-up gives the book by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker a satisfying depth and weightiness.  There is honesty and truth to the story, which could easily be about veterans returning home from any armed conflict over the years.


As Donny is recruiting musicians, he looks in on Julia Trojan, the widow of his best friend who died under friendly fire.  She wants to know the full details of his death.  He is hesitant to reveal the shocking truth.  By happenstance he hears her sing and recruits her to be the vocalist for the now Donny Nova group.  As the date for the contest nears, stress mounts within the band and with Donny and Julia.  They overcome adversity to set up an ending, then finale, that is both surprising and gratifying.


The score by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, under the outstanding Musical Direction of Melanie Guerin, is full of extended numbers, which furthers character development and define settings.  There are wistful songs, rousing numbers, and introspective tunes that come together to form a worthwhile whole.


Director Sean Harris, along with Choreographer Darlene Zoller and Robert Mintz, have crafted a show that pops and zings.  The large cast flows into each scene with a breezy effervescence.  Set changes are quick and keep the momentum of the production on the upbeat.  Harris effectively utilizes James Rotondo’s rectangular rotating set and sliding paneled backdrop, along with Jackson Funke’s Lighting Design, to successfully create the various segments of the show.  The Director presents each character’s personal demons with just the right amount of acuteness without becoming maudlin.


Choreographers Zoller and Mintz employ dance, primarily, as a vehicle that augments scenes, with the Act II opener, “Nobody” the only all-out spirited production number.  Choreography also helps define the inner feelings of characters, most notably of Donny Novitski.


The cast is led by Benjamin Nurthen as Donny Novitski and Katie Luke as his love interest Julia Trojan.  Ms. Luke possesses a powerful voice that can be tinged with emotional force - “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” - and a dynamic tension - “Welcome Home (Finale)” - that brings down the house.  She appealingly conveys warmth and vulnerability as she navigates her new, uncertain future.  Mr. Nurthen brings an unsettling passion to his role as we witness his rollercoaster ups and downs.  His performance would be enhanced if he spoke slower and more clearly and if he added more nuance to the role.


The actors, who play their own instruments (augmented by an off-stage band), form a topflight combo.  They are Jack Theiling (Jimmy Campbell on saxophone), Alan Mendez (Davy Zlatic on bass), John Elliott (Nick Radel on trumpet), Chris Haley (Wayne Wright on trombone), and Dan Jantson (Johnny Simpson on drums).  Mindy Cassle, looking like a young Thelma Ritter, adds a bit of spunkiness to the show as Julia’s mother.  Special mention goes to James Felton II, a superb dancer, who’s shadowing of Donny Novitski provides an inner look into his soul.


Bandstand, at Playhouse on Park through August 20.  A show not to be missed.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

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