New York City Theater
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Before the curtain rises on “Bandstand,” the ambitious and lively, yet ultimately unfulfilled new Broadway musical, we hear drums, their sound increasing in intensity. When the show itself starts, the stage is split between fighting soldiers and a woman, Julia, holding flowers to the light. What is probably the first PTSD musical balances war and its unshakable memories against the rigors, disappointments and hopes of the home front.
Taking place in Cleveland and New York, in post-WWII 1945, the show concerns returning soldiers, witnesses to death and destruction. Haunted by their experiences and now at loose ends, how do they integrate themselves back into civilian life? How do they deal with alcoholism and broken marriages?
Donny Novitski, a talented, insomniac pianist, aims to help himself and others by forming a swing band of former servicemen and entering a contest offering movie contracts to the winner. Playing gigs will demonstrate the healing power of art. “When we play,” one vet says, “the noise in my head goes away.”
On a personal level, Donny was best buddy of Julia’s husband who was killed in battle. As the band achieves success, Julia, who joins up as its vocalist, becomes increasingly attracted to Donny, and vice versa. The love story, besides being predictable, is front and center, reducing what the vets are going through to snippets.
Through it all, there’s an overload of dancing, although the jitterbugging is awesome. But all that energy is distracting as bodies flip this way and that, and the thinness of the plot becomes apparent. For all its earnestness, the show simply doesn’t dig deeply enough.
Richard Oberacker composed the nostalgic score with its references to the big-band era. “Welcome Home” is a powerful standout, with goodies like “I Know a Guy” and “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.” Oberacker also collaborated on the book and lyrics with Rob Taylor.
As directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), it’s a middle-of-the-road show, overly busy while also appealing, even touching at times. Corey Cott (“Newsies,” “Gigi”) is a Donny of strength and poignancy. Looking a bit like Montgomery Clift, he has much of that actor’s sensitivity. Golden-voiced Laura Osnes reaches down to find Julia’s overwhelming grief and recovery. As her mom, Beth Leavel is delicious, making her solo, “Everything Happens” (“And the only thing you get / Is a lifetime of regret”), another highlight. The actors who impersonate band members actually play their instruments, a plus.
“Bandstand” is a sincere musical, willing to tackle a controversial subject while honoring and celebrating servicemen. If that purpose is sometimes sidelined and only cursorily explored, if the enterprise feels more like an in-progress work than a finished one, at least the result is still intriguing.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 8, 2017