West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park brings us a production of Bandstand so enthralling
that, though some emotional moments don’t land, it would be difficult to say the show
is anything but a success. Bandstand is a little Swing Time and some Saving Private
Ryan; and though war stories tell differently on screen than on stage, Director Sean Harris
delivers. With the Avengers assemble-like build-up that introduces us to each cast member in
the I Know a Guy number, Harris achieves the look, sound, and feel of triumph when the lights
shine brightly over the band that finally takes form after a slow build. The show is what you
imagine every soldier coming home should feel after putting their lives on the line for their
country. Harris and the cast bring us through the highs and lows of that hope.
Donnie, our male lead— driven by a medley of inspiration, ambition, and desperation searches
high and low for soldiers with musical inclinations in hopes of bringing together a band. After a
radio competition promises to change their lives, shuttle them off to New York’s concrete jungle,
and honor his war buddy that doesn’t make it back home— Donnie collects his team. The band,
complete with a drummer, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, a bassist, and a trombonist to accompany
Donnie’s piano stylings comes together against all odds. As they search for the song that will win
them a place on air, they find a lead singer in the unlikeliest of places.
Benjamin Nurthen, who plays our lead Donnie, has the incredible responsibility of carrying the
emotional burden of the storyline in his communication with the other band members as he
pleads with them, not only to join but to rearrange their lives to accommodate his vision. Nurthen
doesn’t always deliver the emotion we hope to see. He’s often upheld by cast mates who gave us
more of what each moment asks for. This is particularly true for scenes between Nurthen and our
female lead Julia Trojan, played by Katie Luke. Luke’s seamless cuts between joyful and grief-
ridden makes the tension of their engagements palpable in the moments when Nurthen’s
performance falls short of eliciting our emotions.
As for the rest of the band, John Elliot gives us classic turncoat as Nick the trumpeter, who is
ready to jump ship at any sign of failure. Dan Jantson, our drummer Johnny, provides some
comic relief with his memory loss and redundant car story. Alan Mendez, playing Davy on the
bass, also provides us some comic relief while reminding us of the realities of the role
alcoholism plays in the lives of our veterans. Jack Theiling, the mellow, level-headed, law-
studying saxophonist serves as an unsung hero in our story, holding the band together in more
ways than one. Then we have Chris Haley as Wayne on the trombone. Haley evokes the range of
emotions you expect of anyone battling their return from war and the struggle to find common
ground between who he is at home and who he had to be overseas. Haley delivers much of the
emotion that I expect of our lead, Nurthen.
Every member of the cast contributes to the full experience of the show. James Felton II, Tiara
Greene, Jerry Hamilton, LaVane Harrington, Stephen C. Kallas, Emma Luxemburg, Declan
Smith, Julia Solecki, and Alexis Yard of the ensemble heightens the sensory experience that is
the Bandstand musical. The graceful rearranging of the set to transition scenes is masterfully
done. Their dance numbers against the backdrop of a moving stage and shifting lights deserve
more recognition than I can aptly supply here. Melanie Guerin, the director of music, gives us a
soundtrack of grief with numbers to bop to as well as sob-worthy ballads.
Felton’s addition, as what I presume to be the ghost of Michael ‘Rubber’ Trojan, as well as a
memory of fallen soldiers that haunt some of the other veterans, feels like salt to taste. The
instruction you see in recipes that allows for as much salt as is needed to make the dish just so—
Felton provides just enough gracefully melancholy movement to each scene to emphasize the
emotion present, or to subsidize it, in some cases. It and all the other well-timed displays of
leaps, twists, and hand waves that keeps us all entranced nods to a job extremely well done by
the choreography team of Darlene Zoller and Robert Mintz. The Welcome Home number and
dance delivers the height of the emotional offering as Luke beautifully sings her heart out
through the dissonance of cheerful words and the pain of her character Julia’s loss.
The You Deserve It number is a vision. The light show, masterfully curated by Jackson Funke,
turns the scene into something reminiscent of a vibrant painting capturing a celebration. That
picture folds over on itself in the way the lights accent the movement of the entire ensemble. The
lighting team turns the vibrant picture into silhouettes of celebration and back again. The
contributions of James Rotondo, Scenic Designer, Kirk Ruby, Sound Designer, Barbara Erin
Delo, Costume Designer, Erin Sagnelli, Props Master and Rachel Mondschein, Stage Manager
helps to transform Playhouse on Park into an enveloping setting for a heartwarming story.
Love Will Come and Find Me Again taps into the swing vibe in a way that makes me want to
forget the harrowing war-torn element of the story. Luke, our female lead, brings us to the brink
of grief over and over, only to lift us up to hope’s doors in this captivating number.
Bandstand shouts the boys are back in town. The progression of camaraderie through sadness
and terror, the timely funny moments popping up again and again makes us feel like we are part
of the show. This feel-good story is our hope for all of our soldiers that come back home, that
there’s friendship, joy, and love to be found in their second act— despite what we know to be
You can catch Bandstand at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through August 20th.