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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2017

Bandstand: The New American Musical Music by Richard Oberacker. Book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Music Supervisor and Arranger Greg Anthony Rassen. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova. Co-Orchestrators Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen. Vocal arrangements by David Kreppel. Cast: Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, and Beth Leavel, with 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, Keven Quillon, Jonathan Shew, Ryan Vandenboom, Jaime Verazin, Mindy Wallace, Kevin Worley.
Theatre: Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Corey Cott, Joe Carroll, Laura Osnes, Brandon J. Ellis,
Alex Bender, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Swing music tends to be both exciting and comforting: reliant on the bright, brash edges of brass, but conjuring the more innocently explosive energy of a simpler and carefree era. But with their new musical Bandstand, which just opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs, Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor focus on the shadows behind the sunshine. It's set just after the conclusion of World War II, with the music created by the (fictitious) Donny Nova Band deceptively significant in salving the wounds of the fight that all of its members endured, while opening new ones due to the difficulty of restarting life in the ostensibly freer world they helped establish.

The conflict between what is and what should be is the powerful driving force behind this compelling evening, which has been directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights, Hamilton). The Donny Nova Band is the brainchild of one Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), who served in the army and has found far fewer welcoming arms than he expected upon returning to his native Cleveland in 1945. To give himself work, and a chance, he assembles his group from all returned servicemen: Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins) on saxophone, Davy Zlatik (Brandon J. Ellis) on bass, Nick Radel (Alex Bender) on trumpet, Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) on trombone, and Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll) on drums.

Getting the guys together and keeping them in sync isn't easy; each has his own issues. Wayne is a neat freak, for example; the war drove Davy to drink; and Johnny lost more than a little of his cognitive abilities after his jeep was hit by enemy fire and flipped (with him in it) three times. Donny, though, might have it toughest of all: He was responsible for the death of his buddy, Michael Trojan, and is tasked with bringing the news back to Michael's wife, Julia (Laura Osnes). He doesn't want to tell her the truth, but he needs her—or, to be more specific, her poetry (read: lyric-writing) skills and excellent singing voice to inspire and front the band. Only then might they have a shot at the big NBC tribute to the troops that promises them Hollywood and recording-contract fame.

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes with the company
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There aren't many more twists to the story; its two big questions—will the band make it, and how long can Donny keep the truth from Julia—are all it has. If extending those two relatively minor matters to a full two and a half hours is stretching it, and if the others in the group function mostly as filler, Oberacker (book, lyrics, and music) and Taylor (book and lyrics) have nonetheless created a heartfelt show that works well on its own terms. The characters' plights are taken seriously, and contrasted deftly but subtly with those of everyone who've suffered crippling costs to serve their country, and the take-no-prisoners climax probably won't land where you expect it to. There's no sugarcoating with how tough conquering heroes can have it, even by those who most claim to want to celebrate their accomplishments.

The music, orchestrated by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen and musical directed by Fred Lassen, is of the bold and infectious variety you'd expect from the genre, the experience and the verisimilitude heightened by the band members wielding their own instruments in conjunction with the 13 pit players. (Cott takes to the piano, ferociously.) Too often, however, the songs aren't memorable—even the diegetic ones performed by the band. Only "You Deserve It," a pressure-cooking number in the first act, has the panache of a popular hit; "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home" (in its first of two incarnations), which play critical roles in the plot, are remarkably flavorless, and the character songs, mostly for Donny and Julia, don't linger much longer.

Blankenbuehler fares better, his staging brisk and fluid, and accentuating the ghosts and nightmares that are afflicting all our heroes. His crowd scenes are especially terrific, lively and light-headed one moment, sinewy and sensual the next, always in accordance with the music. Though ornamenting his scenes transitions isn't strictly necessary, and in fact distracts during the harsher or more somber moments, Blankenbuehler's doing this definitely fixes the action in the proper time and place and acts as a barometer to the influence of the music on the populace. David Korins's downmarket dive set in Act I has a cheap, halfway-there look that doesn't impart much in the way of style, but improves drastically when things get more conceptually mod following intermission. Paloma Young's costumes and Jeff Croiter's lights are first-rate throughout.

So are the lead performances. Cott, though out of his league in his last Broadway appearance in Gigi, makes an arresting leading man here, projecting a striking sense of what it means to look forward and back at the same time. His commanding singing voice helps, but it's how he lodges Donny between the present and the past that makes every part of his character work, and fuels the life-changing decisions he must make as he progresses. Osnes (Cinderella) looks and sounds smashing, though she could dig a bit deeper to find more of Julia's defining darkness. Beth Leavel, who won a Tony for The Drowsy Chaperone, doesn't do much more than bang out a series of barbed one-liners in her largely extraneous role as Julia's mother, but she does it with such consummate skill, you won't much mind. (Speaking to Donny: "Gershwin's got nothing on you. But then, he's dead, so there's that.") The band guys look and sound good, and play with arresting brio, but can never make their parts seem particularly important.

That might be okay. Bandstand isn't about paying tribute to one person or one victory, but examining the prices we all pay in pursuit of fulfilling our obligations to others. Its impact might be greater if the music more frequently made this same point in the other direction—only in the gang's last major onstage blow-out, when they've honed one of their tunes into a deadly weapon, do we really get a hint of this. But it's impossible to avoid confronting the sacrifices history's bravest made on all our behalves, both during and after the battle of their lives.


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