Jennifer Elizabeth Smith performs with vulnerability and complexity, adding to the depth of the musical.
The Broadway sensation, “Bandstand,” opened in New York City in 2015 and made its way to Tulsa for one single night last Tuesday. “Bandstand” tells the story of the aftermath of World War II through the lives of returning veterans and those who lost loved ones in battle. The musical is particularly special in that it is the first ever to be certified by Got Your 6, a nonprofit organization created to ensure accurate portrayals of military veterans in popular culture. The cast and crew worked directly with real veterans in order to create the most well-rounded, authentic characters possible. I feel secondhand regret for anyone who was unable to witness this spectacular and moving show last week.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Jennifer Elizabeth Smith, who plays Julia Trojan, a woman who lost her husband during the war. She talked to me a bit about her background and how she began acting at a very young age and decided to pursue theater as a career. She earned a BFA in Musical Theater from the Boston Conservatory. Following the production of “Something Rotten!,” the company Smith was touring with announced that it would be working on “Bandstand.”
She proceeded to bug the casting directors for about six months, begging them to consider her for the show. She auditioned six times for the part and got the call that she would be playing only six weeks before rehearsals started.
Being particularly enamored and in awe of Julia Trojan, I asked Jennifer what her favorite thing about her character is. Smith didn’t hesitate in saying she loved and admired Julia particularly for her resilience. The ability of this woman to be so strong, and not in a showy way, after losing her husband to war, her father to another woman and her staying in Cleveland rather than moving and starting a new life somewhere else is remarkable. She’s so vulnerable and emotionally mature so she can channel all of these feelings into the creation of art in an era when no one is really talking about their feelings.
Just hearing Smith gush over Julia got me even more excited to see her embody this incredible woman. Lastly, I asked Smith what she thought audiences would love or be surprised by when they saw “Bandstand.”
“People are going to hear the name ‘Bandstand’ and think Dick Van Dyke is going to come out and swing dance with 50’s music,” the actress joked. Smith emphasized that this was a story that talks about really things and it’s an extremely unique and eye-opening show. It couldn’t be left out that the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed the famous “Hamilton,” is what elevates this show, as he is able to capture the themes and emotions of the show through movement.
After speaking with Jennifer, I had extremely high expectations for the show and they were all exceeded. From the opening number when we are introduced to the returning vet, Donny Novinski, the audience is wrapped in the warm tenor voice of the lead actor.
The production only continued to enthrall me with the ensemble of dancers and witty one-liners. When seeing a musical, you sort of expect for the voices of the actors to be pretty polished. What I was absolutely blown away by was that every actor on the stage who played an instrument in the Veteran band, was actually playing their instruments live. So not only were these men impeccable singers with angelic voices, masters of Blankenbeuheler’s intense footwork and body movements, but they are also each superb instrumentalists. It was the greatest display of musicianship and artistic craft I had ever seen.
Jennifer Elizabeth Smith really got it right when she described the interworking complexities of the plot and characters in “Bandstand.” It was so interesting to see the conflicting power dynamics at play throughout the show. Donny learns how to be vulnerable through Julia’s strength which she maintains indefinitely with the utmost grace.
The beautiful display of music as a source of relief in the face of trauma and grief really touched and resonated with me. The musical does a wonderful job of combining humorous theatrical elements with commentary on the very real psychological and emotional aftermath that accompanies those who have experienced a catastrophe.
The drummer in the band, Johnny, has severe memory loss and drug dependency. He only feels able to cope with through playing music. The saxophone player, Jimmy, practices law in order to bring some order and justice to a wildly unjust world. Bass player, Davy, is an extreme alcoholic, who willingly admits to being attached to liquor because it keeps the memories of war away. Trombonist, Wayne, has a heart wrenching scene where he’s clearly contemplating suicide in his home that he eventually leaves when his wife can’t understand his behaviors and coping.
All of this and more culminates in the profoundly moving finale number, “Welcome Home.” My arms were covered with goosebumps and there were tears in my eyes as Smith belted her lungs out, transporting the audience to a completely different time and place.
My two favorite parts of the show were a particular interlude of dance between a soldier and his girl, in which there was so much said without any words at all. Secondly, Louis Jannuzzi III, who played Wayne was not only everything I aspire to be as a trombone player, but also had one of the most emotion-filled voices I’ve ever heard. I find myself after the fact scrolling through certain songs just to hear Wayne featured, and the original recording really doesn’t hold a candle to what Jannuzzi was able to do.
Despite the weight of what “Bandstand” depicts, the entire show had a vibrancy to it. Even the most somber songs were met with such emotional intensity and energy. The entire production was such a beautiful display of pure talent and versatility. Between the piercing warmth and sincerity of the relationships between mothers and daughters, estranged lovers and brothers at arms, this is not an experience I shall soon forget. My friend Alyssa and I turned to each other after the curtains closed and said, “Can we see it again?”