The boys singing and swinging their hearts out in “Bandstand,” an exuberant new musical set in the days just after World War II, are chasing an uncertain future and running from their traumatic pasts. Veterans all, with the battered psyches to prove it, they pound the piano keys, bang away at the drums and blow into their horns in the hopes of burning off the steam building in their emotional pipes. This being a musical, of course, they mostly succeed.
“Bandstand,” with a frisky boogie-woogie-laced score by Richard Oberacker, and book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Oberacker, is the last new musical to open in a season almost overstuffed with them. The total comes to a baker’s dozen, an encouraging indication that the hunger for fresh voices on Broadway, fed in recent years on the success of groundbreaking shows like “Fun Home” and (duh) “Hamilton,” has led to a healthy spirit of risk-taking on the part of producers.
“Bandstand” is not, by any measure, the most original of this season’s abundant crop. Like many technically “new” musicals before it, it trades in nostalgia for the years when boy meeting girl was an essential plot device, and when show music and popular music were virtually indistinguishable, as standards from the songbooks of Cole Porter and the Gershwins and other Tin Pan Alley stalwarts scaled the charts.
And in addition to a tale of a boy and girl, the story is a variation on the time-tested narratives of let’s-put-on-a-show shows. An ambitious young piano player and composer, Donny Novitski, played with enthralling magnetism by Corey Cott, in the breakout performance of the season (Ben Platt was seen in “Dear Evan Hansen” Off Broadway last season), returns to his hometown of Cleveland and decides to start a band when he learns that a national competition is being held to honor veterans. The winning song, and the band behind it, will be featured in a Hollywood movie.
Donny spends most of the early scenes herding musical cats: the sometimes grumpy, damaged or reluctant fellow veterans who also play instruments. In between booking small-time gigs and rehearsals, he also finds time to introduce himself to Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best buddy from the service. Julia also happens to have a mean set of pipes, and is soon eased into singing with the band. (Beth Leavel, wry and warm, plays Julia’s wiseacre mother.)
Some of its material may be straight from the stock shelves, but “Bandstand” has more than a few fresh notes up its sleeve — mostly blue ones. The musical puts as much emphasis on the psychological scars that assail the band members from witnessing the violence and death of war as it does on the mechanics of their journey to the big contest finals in New York. (Alternative title not chosen for obvious reasons: “PTSD: The Musical.”)
And Andy Blankenbuehler, the Tony-winning choreographer of “Hamilton,” here directing in addition to creating the ample dances, infuses the proceedings with a surging dynamism that virtually never lets up. On a flexible set design by David Korins, the musical moves with fleet feet between big nightclub numbers and more intimate songs. You don’t have much time to note the occasional kernel of corn or the pretty bare-bones plotting.
Cott rips into the role of Donny with a vitality, even a ferocity, that scrubs away any of the role’s surface familiarity. You’d think he never saw a movie from the 1940s before — and I mean that in a nice way. Cott’s performance has the raw tumult of a man continually struggling with inner conflicts: frustration, irritation and guilt over a dark wartime secret at constant war with his natural enthusiasm, optimism and the heedless energy and ambition of youth. He’s got a strong singing voice, and brings a bruising force to Donny’s big emotional ballads.
Osnes, too, deserves some major love for revitalizing what might be a plain-Jane ingénue role. She has become a reliably excellent musical theater actor, her gifts sometimes underrated or taken for granted. (Guilty as charged.) With fresh faces bursting onto Broadway every year, it’s easy to forget how rare her combination of talents is. She sings with beautiful purity and tone, acts with a fine simplicity, and here gets a chance to prove that her dancing chops are in fine working order, too. Osnes never pushes her character’s feelings on the audience; she reveals them slowly, as people do in life, allowing us to discover them for ourselves.
The supporting cast is excellent, too. The book can be a little schematic in its careful apportioning of one minor mental problem or another to each of the band members. In this it replaces the ethnic variety of standard-issue World War II movies with an assortment of listings ripped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders.
And so Davy, the rumpled bass player played with a nice mordant humor by Brandon J. Ellis (with a then-hardly-fashionable Brooklyn beard), hits the sauce as if prohibition is coming back in style. The drummer Johnny (a sweetly dizzy Joe Carroll) has a slightly distant stare, pops pills and obsessively recounts the time his jeep flipped three times. Wayne (Geoff Packard, playing the grown-up), on trombone, has a wife and kids — and a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder.
You get the picture, but what adds to the thrumming vitality of the show is that all the actors are actually playing their instruments live, blending smoothly with a small orchestra in the pit to make an unusually immediate and robust sound for a Broadway show. Also among the pleasures of “Bandstand” is the abundance of dance, a rarity in new Broadway musicals these days. (Aside from the revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” this has been a sadly paltry season for dance in Broadway musicals.) Much of the dance derives straight from the styles of the 1940s, but Blankenbuehler fuses it with more vernacular movement, sometimes including flashbacks to the turbulent chaos of the battlefield, that helps freshen the effect.
In fact, what “Bandstand” manages to do with unexpected ease is lace together, with minimal stitching showing, the band members’ troubled past and their more hopeful present. In keeping with this sometimes melancholy tone, the show does not glide entirely smoothly to a predictable big-finish ending. Oberacker’s score, mostly skillful big-band pastiche, also features a real charmer of a song, “This Is Life,” in which, just when we expect the inevitable clinch to come, Donny and Julia enumerate all the reasons they should remain unclinched (for now), in lyrics that wittily compare the easy promises of movies, books and songs to the tougher truths of life.
In a season so full of new musicals, I could wish that “Bandstand,” like some others, had a little more room to breathe. It’s a populist crowd-pleaser, performed with such ebullient energy that you find yourself rooting for the boys to win the big prize, sentimental though it seems. And while the show certainly has its imperfections — few shows are without them — I found myself rooting just as happily for it, too. █
“Bandstand” opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 26, 2017.
Produced by Tom Smedes, Gabrielle Palitz, Terry Schnuck, Tom Kirdahy, Roger Horchow, Peter Stern, Michael Palitz, Jane Dubin, David Lyons, Sarah Perot, James L. Nederlander, James & Catherine Berges, Darren DeVerna & Jere Harris, Jeff & Ellen Adler, Nancy & Randy Best, Deep End Productions, Patty Baker, Terry D. Loftis/Scott D. Huffman, Independent Presenters Network/Charles & Lisa Siegel, Rosie Gunther McCooe/J. Scott & Sylvia G. Bechtel, Diane & John Kalishman/Alison & John Ferring and The Shubert Organization (Philip J. Smith: Chairman; Robert E. Wankel: President); Produced in association with Paper Mill Playhouse (Mark S. Hoebee, Producing Artistic Director; Todd Schmidt, Managing Director); Associate Producer: Sammy Lopez
Book by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Music by Richard Oberacker; Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Co-Orchestrator: Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen; Music arranged by Greg Anthony Rassen; Vocal arrangements by David Kreppel; Musical Director: Fred Lassen
Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler; Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler; Associate Choreographer: Mark Stuart; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg; Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova; Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova
General Manager: The Charlotte Wilcox Company; Company Manager: Katie Pope; Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions; Production Stage Manager: Mark Dobrow; Stage Manager: Julia Jones