Thursday, April 25, 2024

If You Ask Me: “Bandstand”

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Bandstand Closes Playhouse on Park Season

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

The plucky Playhouse on Park (POP) in West Hartford has closed its 14th season with an outstanding production of the musical, Bandstand. In what has been a generally terrific season for POP, Bandstand is probably the best musical the company has produced to date.

Set in 1945, Bandstand tells the story of musician Donny Novitski (a superb Benjamin Nurthen) who returns from the war haunted by the death of his friend, Michael.  The death was Donny’s fault and when he meets Michael’s widow, Julia (Katie Luke, luminous), he asks her to join his band.  The band is made up of fellow veterans and Julia would be lead singer as they compete in a swing band contest.

With music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, Bandstand does not shy from the horrors of war and the guilt suffered by the returning veterans who, to various degrees, have all come home changed men.  In that regard, Oberacker and Taylor share a Kander & Ebb vibe with their fearless approach to traditional musical comedy material.

An outstanding company of actors (mostly non-Equity for this production) work seamlessly under Sean Harris’ smooth direction and Darleen Zoller and Robert Mintz’s stunning choreography.  Several of the featured performers not only act, sing and dance but play their own instruments.  Nurthen is sensational leading the company as a broken veteran shouldering guilt and pain while finding redemption and purpose leading the band. The actor, who also plays a mean piano in the show, is sturdily supported by fellow actors/musicians Jack Theiling, Alan Mendez, John Elliott and Chris Haley.  Katie Luke, in the prime female role, rises to the challenge singing her heart out in the wrenching “Welcome Home” number at the musical’s climax.  A winning Mindy Cassie plays Julie’s mom with just the right about of starch and sugar.

James Rotondo’s adaptable scenic design keeps the actors busy with a turntable set and movable platforms that cleverly suggests various locations.  Jackson Funke’s lighting enhances all those locales and Barbara Erin Delo’s costuming looks absolutely right from top to bottom.

The emotional journey that Bandstand takes its audience on packs a wallop not usually experienced in the musical comedy format.  We are reminded, once again, that what our veterans sacrifice for their country should never be taken for granted.  This is a most memorable way to end POP’s laudable 14th season.

Bandstand continues at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, through August 20th.  For further information, call: 860.523.5900 X10 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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