By Samuel L. Leiter
There’s a lot of heart and a considerable amount of talent off and onstage in Bandstand, a sincere, upbeat, but overly sudsy and clichéd musical that’s moved to Broadway after premiering in 2015 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse as The Bandstand. A respectful, well-produced look at the social, psychological, and career difficulties faced by GIs returning from World War II, it invites comparison with other stage and screen treatments of similar problems, like 1946’s powerful film, The Best Years of Our Lives.
Knottiest of the show’s problems is the score by Richard Oberacker (music) and Rob Taylor, his collaborator on the book and lyrics. They deserve a chutzpah Tony for creating a show in which the central characters are musicians who play, not the actual big band swing of 1945, when the show is set, but pastiches.
The jukeboxes of 1945 played such unforgettables as “Sentimental Journey,” “Till the End of Time,” “Candy,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” and “There! I’ve Said It Again,” while bobby soxers swooned to greats like Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and Nat King Cole. When Bandstand specifically introduces a song it calls a “standard,” “First Steps First,” it’s tempting to call it faux-gettable.
Bandstand is about Donny Novitsky (Corey Cott), a handsome, Italian-Polish singer-pianist-composer who comes home to Cleveland from fighting in the Pacific only to find himself unable to land a paying gig. A national radio talent contest for a band, whose prize will be to have their original song used in a movie, inspires him to assemble one made up entirely of veterans (James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, Brandon J. Ellis, Joe Carroll, and Alex Bender). The guys, of course, are all saddled with war-related conditions, ranging from alcoholism to memory troubles.
Donny, dubbing himself Donny Nova, overcomes the reluctance of the beautiful church soloist and Gold Star wife Julie Trojan (Laura Osnes) to serve as the band’s vocalist. Faithful to her late husband, Michael, Donny’s best buddy, Julie refuses to change her own name, despite its being juvenile joke bait.
As per the conventions of such plots, the band overcomes various obstacles—including Julie’s possible defection—and takes its sentimental journey to New York to compete in the radio show’s finals. At the last minute, though, a band member interested in the law notes a problem regarding the rights to their big song, for which Julie wrote the lyrics. Not to fear, the ever-resourceful Donny comes up with a resolution that, contrived and corny as it is, leads to Julie’s defiantly sung, ironically titled, 11:00 number, “Welcome Home.” Unsurprisingly, it got a standing O when I attended.
While Bandstand never overcomes the impediment of its ersatz tunes, exciting director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) keeps our eyes and ears glued to his inventive staging and period-inspired dance numbers. The show, with a cast of 27, and a pit orchestra of 11 supplementing the onstage players (making it hard to determine where some of what we’re hearing is coming from), is excellently performed; the character-musicians—percussion, trumpet, trombone, and bass—are highly polished and their music, if not its melodies, replicates the old-time sound.
Osnes (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), lovely as ever, makes as much of Julia as could anyone. It’s disappointing, though, to hear her impressive pipes employed in a standard 2017 Broadway mode; it has nothing in common with the distinctive sound and manner used by girl bandstand singers of the day.
Corey Cott (Gigi)—looking a tad like a young Monty Clift, and tickling the ivories with finesse—likewise sounds more like a present-day Broadway star than a 40s crooner but he leaves a strong impression as the manically driven Donny, a role with plenty to chomp on. Beth Leavel as Julie’s levelheaded mom provides much of the show’s humor; she gets a warm response for her solo, the sensitively sung “Everything Happens.”
David Korins’s scenery, expertly lit by Jeff Croiter, has two contrasting styles: the first shows a shabby Cleveland nightclub, also used for other locales, including the battlefield; the second, more abstract, serves for later scenes, like those on a New York-bound train or at the radio station. Paloma King’s period costumes are inconsistent, some looking authentic enough, others, mainly the men’s, not so much.
Any show built around the musical tastes of World War II is going to be swathed in nostalgia; audience members who grew up then may not be able to ignore their memories in favor of a less-satisfying substitute. While not, like Bandstand, specifically about music making, Grease is an example of a show able to create songs from a particular era that sounded like (and satirized) its inspirations, making new hits as it did so. For this child of the early 40s, Bandstand is no Grease.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th St., NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).