🎭 A Band of Veterans | “Bandstand” @ ATG/Broadway in Thousand Oaks

Bandstand (American Theatre Guild/Broadway in Thousand Oaks)When you think about Broadway Tours coming to Los Angeles, where do they go first? If you said the Hollywood Pantages (FB) or the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), you would probably be right … and if the tour was a non-Equity tour, the Pantages / Dolby complex would pretty much be the only choice. Depending on the tour, it might hit the Segerstrom in Orange County first, but a non-Equity tour would end up at the Pantages.

Unless, of course, the Pantages’ schedule was full. And the Pantages’ schedule was full in 2019-2020, especially with longer sit-down engagements for Frozen and Hamilton at the Pantages, and having to fit programs around the Dolby’s concert schedule. What’s a touring show to do?

Go to Thousand Oaks.

And so, rarity of rarities, the premiere of the tour of the Broadway musical Bandstand in Southern California found itself part of the Broadway in Thousand Oaks/American Theatre Guild 2019-2020 schedule, together with secondary market tour visits of shows that had been at the Pantages in previous seasons: Finding Neverland, BeautifulJersey BoysAn American in Paris, and Riverdance. An extremely rare sighting. The American Theatre Guild rarely gets the first edition of a tour in the area.

Now, you might not have heard of Bandstand. It didn’t last long on Broadway: 24 previews, 166 performances. The authors and composing team (Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor) were new on Broadway, although they did score with a hot choreographer — Andy Blankenbuehler, known for Hamilton among other shows. The title of the show was misleading, evoking images of Dick Clark and the 1950s, as opposed to WWII and the Big Band era. In its execution, it touched on subjects of current relevance — the treatment of veterans, survivors guilt, PTSD. In fact, the show is 6 Certified, approved by an effort to show veterans in entertainment accurately. Still, the Broadway run was a failure, then why tour? The answer is the show is very good, and the producers obviously felt it would touch a nerve in America’s heartland with its message. I could see that easily in Thousand Oaks, for Ventura County is a strong pro-military county with the Naval Base nearby. There are no fancy projections or stage tricks in this show: it will do much better touring and in regional productions than in the jaded environment that is Broadway and New York. And that’s OK.

Of course, I’m writing this up because I saw the show last night. I learned about the show shortly after the cast album came out in 2017, and I fell in love with the music and the story. So when I learned the tour was coming to Thousand Oaks … after getting over my shock of the first appearance of the tour being in T.O. … I put the date on my calendar and a reminder to get tickets as soon as they went on sale.

Here’s the summary of the show as written up on the ATG website:

1945: As America’s soldiers come home to ticker-tape parades and overjoyed families, Private First Class Donny Novitski, singer and songwriter, returns to rebuild his life with only the shirt on his back and a dream in his heart. When NBC announces a national competition to find the nation’s next great musical superstars, inspiration strikes! Donny joins forces with a motley group of fellow veterans, each an astonishing musician. Together, they form a band unlike any the nation has ever seen. Along the way, they discover the power of music to face the impossible, find their voice and finally feel like they have a place to call home.

Essentially, the through line is this: Donny Novitski comes back from WWII wanting to pick up the life he had — playing piano and accordion. But he can’t find any jobs, and he’s advised to do something before the nightmares from the war starts. Hearing about the NBC contest, he decides to build up a band of veterans. He does, going on recommendations from his buddies. But each, like Donny, are damaged goods in their own way: shell-shocked from the war, dealing with stress through the bottle or retreating from people or … . Part of Donny’s stress comes from an obligation to his war buddy, Michael, to take care of his widow, Julia. The problem: Michael was killed by friendly-fire, and Donny has survivors guilt. But he recruits Julia to be the band’s singer, and the competition starts. What happens then is somewhat predicable: they win contests, there’s a spark between Donny and Julia, they eventually get to New York after some trials and tribulations. But with their gimmick, they get on the show … but Donny inadvertently signs away the rights to their big song (if they perform it). So instead, they change the song they are performing to one that tells the truth of what happens to vets when they return — how the “Welcome Home” isn’t quite what is expected. They lose the battle, but win the war.

I knew the outlines of the story going in from the cast album. But I was touched by how much the story moved me — and clearly, from the reaction, how much it moved the veterans and active duty service in the audience. It is the first accurate portrayal on stage, in a musical, of how war impacts the veterans. This isn’t a South Pacific. This shows war as doing ugly things to good people, and how a handshake and $25 doesn’t make up for it.

But I can also see why the Pantages might have hesitated on the show. This wasn’t a mediocre show built around the jukebox of a name star (SummerBodyguard) that has a built in audience of the fans of that music. It wasn’t a blockbuster that won major awards and is well known, and wasn’t built around a known property. It was a hard show to sell to those unfamiliar with it. It is also unclear how well it might play in the larger LA market, where the playing to active duty might be a lot harder. This show needs to build its word of mouth from the cities near bases first. But for the American Theatre Guild, it was a chance to get the premiere of a show in Southern California.

If you know veterans or active duty folks, or care about our military (even if you don’t necessarily agree with their actions), see this. It presents a great portrayal of how calling these men and women’s “heroes” is a gloss over what they’ve been through. I think the show accurately addresses how those who haven’t been through military service don’t understand the adjustment back to civilian life, and how veterans cope. I think it can spark a wonderful discussion to that affect. I also think its important to encourage new authors and new music and original books for Broadway. One can get tired of “screen-to-stage” musicals or the minimal-book jukebox shows.

As I noted before, this is a non-Equity tour. This means the performers are often much younger. They haven’t been on Broadway yet — this is often getting them the experience they need to make that leap. They may be long established in regional markets, or in other union efforts (e.g., theatrical, variety, or music). We found the cast of this show to be extremely talented.

This show was “based on” the original direction and choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler. Tour direction was by Gina Rattan, with restaging and additional choreography by Marc Heitzman. The movement from the original direction and dance teams was likely due to the short Broadway run and the interval between closing and the set up of the tour. The team did a good job with their young actors, inspiring and leading a very professional production in its execution. The actors were clearly having fun with this show, were inhabiting and believing in their characters (even in the smallest ensemble roles), and did a great job in creating a believable story for the audience.

In the lead positions were Zack Zaromatidis (FBDonny Novitski and Jennifer Elizabeth Smith (⭐FB, FB) Julia Trojan. Zaromatidis did a great job capturing both the enthusiasm and sadness of Novitski, as well as playing mean piano. He had a strong chemistry with Smith’s Julia. Smith had a lovely singing voice and had such a glow about her showing a wonderful inner strength. The two were quite fun to watch. Smith also did a great job of capturing the damage on the other side of the war: how the loss of a loved one, and the lack of knowledge of how it happened, can create trauma as well.

Supporting Zaromatidis’s Novitski as the other members of the band were Rob Clove (⭐FB, FB) Jimmy Campbell – Saxophone; Benjamin Powell (FBDavy Zlatic – Upright Bass; Scott Bell (FBNick Radel – Trumpet; Louis Jannuzzi III (FB) Wayne Wright – Trombone; and Jonmichael Tarleton (FBJohnny Simpson – Drums. All were extremely strong musicians, and they made great music as a group. I particularly appreciated, on the music front, the creativity — such as Tarleton playing percussion off the bridge of Powell’s bass. But these young men were also strong actors, capturing well the nuances of the individual character’s isolations — be it Powell capturing Zlatic’s descent into the bottle; Tarleton capturing the damage from the Jeep rollover to Simpson; Bell capturing the pent up anger in Radel. All were just wonderful.

The last major supporting performer was Roxy York (FBMrs. June Adams. I found her character to be a bit much, but I think that’s how the character was written — and was yet another coping mechanism.

Rounding out the cast were the ensemble members and the swings (and as there was no board, we must assume there were no swings on-stage in our performance). It is important to note the extreme talent in this bunch of people, as all were understudying leads to some extent — meaning that all were capable of playing one or more musical instruments as well as their singing and dancing capabilities. The ensemble is also to be complemented for the characters they created. Particularly in the dance and band numbers, I was watching the ensemble in the background, and they were creating such wonderfully rounded characters and performances. You were seen! The ensemble and swings consisted of Shaunice Alexander (FB) Jean Ann Ryan, Ensemble; Beth Anderson (FBEnsemble; Milena J. Comeau (FBEnsemble; Ryan P. Cyr (FBEnsemble; Michael Hardenberg (FBEnsemble; Andre Malcolm (FBEnsemble; Kaitlyn Mayse (FBEnsemble; Matthew Mucha (⭐FB, FB) Andre, Ensemble; Mallory Nolting (FBEnsemble; Taylor Okey (FBOliver, Ensemble; and Cameron Turner (FBEnsemble. Swings were: Michael Bingham (FBSwing; Sarah Dearstyne (FBSwing; Katie Pohlman (⭐FB, FB) Swing, Dance Captain; and Oz Shoshan (FB) Swing, Dance Captain.

Supporting the on-stage actor/musicans in the pit, under the music direction of Miles Plant, were Miles Plant Keyboard; Brian Victor (FBAssistant Music Director / Keyboard 2 / Guitar / Ukulele; Michael Brinzer (⭐FB, FB) Reeds; Ross Kratter (⭐FB, FB) Bass; and Brian Ganch (FBDrums. Other music credits: Fred Lassen (FB) Music Supervisor; Christopher Gurr (FBAssoc Music Supervisor; Randy Cohen (FB) Keyboard Programmer; Emily Grishman Music Preparation/Alden Terry Music Copying; Greg Anthony Rassen (FB) Music Arranger. The Tony-Award winning orchestrations were by Bill Elliott (🎷FB) & Greg Anthony Rassen (FB) Co-Orchestrators.

Turning to the production and creative side of things: The scenic design for the show was surprisingly simple, especially when compared to the projection-laden and special-effect laden extravaganzas that have shown up at the Pantages and Ahmanson of late. Credit to David Korins (🖼FB) for a simple nightclub set that, when combined with effective props, provided the locations needed, and was easily adaptable to radio studios. It is nice to see a scenic design that will be within the means of a regional or amateur production in the future … this ensures the life of the show. Paloma Young (FB)’s costume design seemed appropriately period, with only a little more stocking instruction needed of the ensemble. Similarly, J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova (FB)’s makeup, hair, and wig design seemed appropriately period. Jeff Croiter (FB)’s lighting design established mood well. Nevin Steinberg (FB)’s original sound design appeared to hold up in the Kavli, but that Kavli (unlike the Pantages) has good sound bones to begin with. Rounding out the production credits: Kate Lumpkin (🎭FB) Casting; David Kreppel Vocal Music Arranger; Alice Renier (⭐FBActing Coach; Elizabeth Allen (FBProduction Stage Manager; Emily Pathman (FBAssistant Stage Manager; Michael Coglan (FB) Company Manager; Mark Stuart (FB) Original Assoc. Choreographer; Jaime Verazin Original Asst. Choreographer; Work Light Productions Producers; Port City Technical Production Management; Allied Touring Tour Marketing & Press; The Road Company Tour Booking.

Unfortunately, one of the bad aspects of Broadway in Thousand Oaks is that it is there for only one weekend, unlike the longer runs at the Pantages. That means that by the time you read this, the final productions of Bandstand at the American Theatre Guild will be over. All I can suggest is that you visit the Bandstand website, and catch the show at its next stops in Colorado Springs on Dec 3-4 (hmmm, I’ll have to tell my COS colleagues) or in Phoenix AZ Dec 6-8. For those California folks, it looks like it will hit Modesto Mar 30-31, 2020 and Sacramento April 7-12, 2020.

🎭

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

December is getting busy, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The weekend after ACSAC brings an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB).  We will also be seeing Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild on December 21.

Looking to early 2020: most of the January is currently quiet, but the middle of the month is busy, with What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, and Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the third weekend, and Cirque Éloize at  the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the last weekend. Things start heating up in February, with The Last Ship (with Sting) at the Ahmanson Theatre the first weekend; A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB) the third weekend; and (whew!)  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. March comes in like a lamb, with the first two weekends (2/29 and 3/7) being quiet… but goes out like a Lion. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner; the 3rd Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last bringing Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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