"Bandstand" Boasts an Upbeat Downbeat

04/26/2017 07:14 pm ET

Bandstand is being promoted as “a swing musical,” and that’s what it joyfully is, as director-choreographer Andy (Hamilton) Blankenbuehler deploys a cast headed by the sparkling and tough Laura Osnes and Corey Cott and boasting some of the most spectacular dancers on Broadway this minute.

The brilliant Blankenbuehler keeps his stageful of remarkable performers moving just about constantly in ways that make spectators watch what each of them is doing individually and what all of them are doing as a lithe, athletic team. For that, abundant bravos.

But know this. Bandstand could also be tub-thumped as “a sting musical,” because it takes an unflinching look at the year or two following the end of World War II. Known at the time—and perhaps still—as the Good War, that global conflict should be more realistically judged as less than unadulteratedly good.

Bandstand book and lyrics writers Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker (Oberacker also the composer) agree on that account. Their view of the swinging period has, for instance, much in common with “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the 1946 Oscar-winning William Wyler film that forced viewers to accept that it wasn’t so easy for veterans to reenter society. It’s a fact Oberacker and Taylor immediately drive home in their irony-dripping opening number “Just Like It Was Before.”

So, no, Bandstand isn’t all Stan Kenton-like emerging swing. It’s a serious confrontation with World War I shellshock, World War II battle fatigue and the post-traumatic stress disorder of the Vietnam and later wars. And therefore, it’s not just a period piece but relevant to today.

If, however, that statement has readers thinking they’d rather see swing than sting, don’t give in. At its heart, what Bandstand is is all heart. It’s not going too far to suggest that the enthralling musical beats with the kind of heart that throbs throughout South Pacific, the Oscar Hammerstein-Richard Rodgers classic that’s also about World War II. (Hammerstein is mentioned in one of the outstanding Taylor-Oberacker ballads, “This Is Life.”)

Why is Bandstand arguably the best new musical of the just ending 2016-2017 season? Because it’s solid stuff about forming a swing band that determinedly takes a stand. Piano-playing Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a veteran eating himself alive due to a wartime secret he’s harboring, decides, when he can’t find work, to form a band to enter and win a nationwide competition.

The men he gathers are all veterans, and, like Donny, each is nursing a deep psychic wound. The idea is that this Cleveland unit—Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll), Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis), Nick Radel (Alex Bender), Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins), Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard)—will be its own music-making rehab.

At the same time Donny has been charged by dying best friend Michael Trojan to contact his wife and widow, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). Donny postpones the duty for a while, but when he finally rings her doorbell and is invited for dinner a few nights later, he discovers she’s a singer. She joins the band and even lends some of the therapeutic poems she’s written to new Donny melodies.

Like bands from time immemorial, the members have their off-bandstand frictions, traced to their PTSD. Davy drinks; Wayne is weathering a foundering marriage. And so on. The band’s tensions tighten the clever plot, and they’re enhanced by the propulsive dancing Blankenbuehler regularly inserts.

For her part, Julia, who lives with her concerned, wise-cracking mother Mrs. June Adams (Beth Leavel), wants to know how the husband buried in the Philippines spent his last days and hours. She can’t stop herself from coaxing Donny to fill her in no matter what. He does in a Taylor-Oberacker revelation that jolts the second act into even higher gear than it’s previously reached.

Oberacker and Taylor have written a work that brims with honesty even as it avoids contrivance and political correctness. Throughout, Bandstand remains highly entertaining while it refuses to recoil from the horrors of war as well as the ugliness the veterans face on their return from the declared battlefield. Kindness does leaven things when the band, having won the local competition, must raise funds that’ll get them to the New York City face-off.

While hewing to the period sounds—all band members play their instruments like virtuosos—songsmiths Taylor and Oberacker come up with a varied and hard-hitting score. There are any number of songs that demand close attention and bear repeated listens, which is sadly rare in tuners these days.

Osnes and Cott have several appealing songs, including the bouncy “First Steps First.” Leavel gets “Everything Happens,” which tells it like it is. Perhaps the most arresting number is “Welcome Home,” the eye- and ear-popping song Donny Novitski, now known as Donny Nova, and gifted pals choose for the New York City competition finale.

Osnes, who’s made herself a current musical leading lady, was last on Broadway as Cinderella. This outing can be seen as her galloping to the other end of the spectrum where she gives the performance of her career so far. The voice is pure as mountain water, but that’s always been true. The purity of her acting as a bereaved woman whose opportunities have been torn from her is what lifts her into a new performing stratum.

Less well known, Cott finds every dimension of heartsick, furious, talented Donny. He sings, dances and works the upright piano constantly being pushed around David Korins’s music hall of a set. Donny is a broken man striving to pretend he isn’t tormented only to have to admit he is. Cott, who’s awfully good-looking into the bargain, hits those character notes with the facility he hits the ebony and ivory ones.

All the supporting players, notably the other band members—a couple of whom are making their singing, acting and dancing debuts—glow in Paloma Young’s wardrobe and under Jeff Croiter’s sophisticated lighting design. There’s also much to commend in Kevin Steinberg’s sound design and Fred Lassen’s musical direction. Tony-winner Leavel has less to do than seems ideal, but she compensates by reaping exit applause on one of her exchanges.

And the dancing! The most profuse praise is insufficient for what those terpers are up to as Blankenbuehler fires their routines. One thing he certainly reminds those who lived through the jitterbug phase is how thrilling it was. What boys and girls did on a dance floor then was often awe-inspiring. Here it is again.

Over the decades Paper Mill Playhouse has been the tryout arena for many shows hoping to cross the river to Manhattan. Bandstand, first offered there in 2015, may well be the Milburn theater’s very best export.

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