“Bandstand,” a new musical about a group of traumatized World War II veterans who form a 40’s jazz band with a Gold Star widow as their singer, attempts to combine an original score of period music and exciting dance with an exploration of the toll that war takes on soldiers, not just in combat but once they return to civilian life.
The show, the last of the 20 musicals that opened on Broadway in the season just ended (seven of them revivals), is one of the few to try to ground its entertainment in a serious issue. That ambition makes it stand out. It surely says something that both “Anastasia” and “Groundhog Day” include glib jokes about Cleveland, while “Bandstand” is set in Cleveland. (There is even an ode to that city, “I Got A Theory.”)
But the show has much more than good intentions going for it.
Click on any photograph by Jeremy Daniel to see it enlarged
The cast, led by two rising Broadway stars, Corey Cott and Laura Osnes, is pitch-perfect, not only acting persuasively but also actually playing their musical instruments, backed by an unseen 13-piece orchestra. The catchy, beat-happy score by Robert Oberacker, making his Broadway debut, pays homage to the big band era of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, offering swing, boogie-woogie, jazz and blues. (The zesty orchestrations have already been nominated for both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards; the Tony nominations will be announced next week.)
Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of both In The Heights and Hamilton, seamlessly nods to 1940s popular dances like the jitterbug in coming up with some lively, inventive moves, performed by some terrific dancers. One number, “Right This Way,” is an effective and moving comment in dance on the veterans’ plight: A band member struggles to move forward, weighed down by a man leaning on each shoulder, until he takes a pill, and they gracefully fall away – the horrid memory of his fallen comrades tempered, at least temporarily, by medication.
Similarly, “Welcome Home,” the last of the show’s 16 songs, is a fiercely delivered litany of the pain of returning veterans, which got a standing ovation the night I attended.
All of this terrific entertainment and artistry is arranged around a plot that also recalls the 1940s, but ultimately not in a good way. The book, written by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, who is also his co-lyricist, focuses on Donny Novitzki (Cotts), starting with a scene of him in combat with his best friend Michael, who dies. Back home, damaged psychologically by what went down overseas and unable to find a job, he hears on the radio that NBC and MGM are sponsoring a song contest in honor of veterans, the winning song to be featured in a Hollywood movie. Donny decides then and there to put together a band of veterans, a self-admitted gimmick that he hopes will tilt the contest in their favor.
In the song “I Know A Guy,” Donny, a pianist, finds his band, first an acquaintance of his dead buddy Michael, saxophonist Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins.) Jimmy leads Donny to bass player Davy (Brandon J. Ellis), a soldier who helped liberate Dachau, and now drinks to forget. Davy recommends trumpet player Nick (Alex Bender), who cannot control his temper, who in turn recommends drummer Johnny (Joe Carroll), whose military Jeep flipped over three times, and so he is now brain damaged. The last member of the band, trombonist Wayne (Geoff Packard) is a neatness freak, clearly someone with OCD. Keeping a promise to his dead friend, Donny visits Michael’s widow, Julia (Osnes), which results in a series of deeply touching scenes, aided immeasurably by the presence of Beth Leavel as Julia’s warm, wise-cracking mother. Julia, as it turns out, is a talented singer, though she has only as yet sung in church, and so she eventually joins the band as well.
All of this, while obviously by the numbers, works fine. But the more the singing contest takes over the plot — the preparations for it, the preliminary trials for it, the fundraising to go to New York for it, even contract disputes over it (I’m not kidding.) — the more the plot stumbles. The plot recovers in the climax, but then the last scene, a kind of tacked-on epilogue which I could have done without, is all about the band’s success. Are we meant to see that the wounds of war heal with time, or (more absurdly) that a successful career will make you get over your war-related physical injuries and post-traumatic stress? Or was it simply a decision to hew to a commercial formula, and play down the veteran angle, in order to sell tickets on Broadway?
Some might bristle at the formula plot, just as some might have preferred the actual song standards from the era. But I found it refreshing to hear new compositions, rather than yet another jukebox musical, even if Oberacker’s tunes are unlikely to get any jukebox play. (“Bandstand” is getting a cast recording, to be released on June 23rd.) And I recognize the plot as simply the creative team’s using a familiar old serving dish for its richly flavorful and largely nutritious meal (albeit based, to extend the metaphor, on a tried-and-true recipe.)
No, “Bandstand” is not “South Pacific.” But Osnes, whose sophomore effort on Broadway was as Kelli O’Hara’s replacement in “South Pacific” and has been a go-to leading lady ever since, deepens what could have been a stock character.
Cott, who made such an auspicious Broadway debut replacing Jeremy Jordan as the chief kid in “Newsies” and an inauspicious follow-up as the too-young tuxedoed Gaston in “Gigi” (Watch Corey Cott, from Newsies to Gigi), has matured at age 27 into an impressive leading man – handsome and charismatic and golden-voiced, but also adept at using the tools he has as a performer to express an authentic-feeling intensity and angst in his character Donny.
Ok, yes, Donny and Julia get together romantically at the end. (That is a spoiler only for somebody who has never seen a musical.) I wish they had not, to be honest, but I acknowledge that would have defied the physics of Broadway. Yet, “Bandstand” is smart enough to have delayed the inevitable as late as possible, and, before it happens, to include a wonderful song entitled “This Is Life” in which they argue for keeping their distance. Sample verse:
If we were singing Hammerstein songs
We could fix all the wrongs in rhyme
But this is life
With the heartache it brings
And we know that these things take time
It takes hubris to diss your better like that, but it’s an example of what’s right about “Bandstand.”
Bernard B Jacobs Theater
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
Cast Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Beth Leavel, Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, Mary Callanan, Max Clayton, Patrick Connaghan, Matt Cusack, Andrea Dotto, Marc A. Heitzman, Ryan Kasprzak, Andrew Leggieri, Erica Mansfield, Morgan Marcell, Drew McVety, Kevyn Morrow, Jessica Lea Patty, Becca Petersen, Kevin Quillon, Jonathan Shew, Ryan VanDenBoom, Jaime Verazin, Mindy Wallace, and Kevin Worley
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $59 to $159. Rush ticket: $35
Bandstand is scheduled to run through December 30, 2017