Bandstand – Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes in Bandstand at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York. Picture: Jeremy Daniel

Bandstand continues at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York.

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

The tagline for Bandstand proudly declares it to be ‘The New American Musical’, and the programme bios for the writers are so disarming and heartfelt that I wish I could have embraced their show a bit more than I did.

It’s an admirable but disconcertingly disjointed effort about US veterans of the Second World War forming a band and eventually winning fame and happiness.

The bio for Richard Oberacker, who composed the music and co-wrote the book and lyrics, says that: “in Japan, Denmark and some of America’s finest regional theatres…Mr. Oberacker has created and premiered many original musicals you’ve never heard a thing about. However, he is honoured to make his Broadway debut and thanks you for coming.” He goes on to individually thank by name 19 other people as well.

The bio for Rob Taylor or Robert Taylor (depending on which part of the programme you’re reading), the book and lyrics’ other co-writer, is more revealing. It tells us that he’s: “delighted to be considered a fresh face on Broadway at age 61. His colleagues from numerous Broadway pit orchestras and classical ensembles seem to be equally tickled to discover there has been a writer in their midst for several decades.

“For Robert,” the bio goes on, “there’s nothing quite like being part of a band. And it’s especially wonderful to get the chance to tell a story that hints at the sense of belonging, got-your-back camaraderie and outright joy he’s been so privileged to have in his life since he began playing violin professionally at age 14.”

Some of that joy is discerned in Bandstand, but it often gets dissipated in a cloud of clunky though earnest storytelling.

Just returned home from the war to his hometown of Cleveland, Donny Novitski, a jazz pianist and aspiring composer, is finding it hard to get his career started.

Then a nationwide contest is announced on radio to find “the next great swing band to write their very own song in honour of our boys in uniform”. A band from each of the then 48 states of America will compete to appear on a radio broadcast, where a final winner will be selected to “appear in a spectacular new motion picture musical”.

Donny is enthused. He hops about town finding other veteran/musicians, winding up with a combo of six players and a great gal vocalist named Julia. Furthermore, Julia turns out to be a poet as well as vocalist, and Donny sets one of her poems to music, creating the band’s contest song, described as a Gershwin-like love song. In various gigs, the band hones its craft, and makes it through the preliminary competition to the big broadcast in New York.

Don’t, however, expect a swing music, jitterbugging frolic. There’s some of that, to be sure, but it’s uncomfortably melded to proceedings that get pretty dark, even depressing.

Each of the band’s players is haunted by wartime memories. Ghosts of fallen colleagues sometimes accompany them onto the stage.

Even worse, Julia is the widow of Donny’s army buddy, killed in a battlefield incident Donny feels inadvertently responsible for.

Furthermore, the welcoming attitudes of the folks at home often turn out to be little more than show, and the contest itself proves to be no boon, with a lot of unexpected hitches. Nevertheless, in not terribly believable fashion, the band overcomes every setback, just as Julia and Donny do on the road to romance.

The score is a mixed bag. It captures the driving tempos of the era’s big band music, well realised in a plentitude of strong orchestrations.

What’s missing are the beguiling melodies and the deceptive simplicity of lyrics that transformed so many of the songs from that era into standards. Curiously, the most arresting number is a Brechtian cry of outrage against the horror of war, entitled ‘Welcome Home’, describing the lingering terrors of veterans trying to settle back into civilian life.

Despite the uneven material, the cast scores its points. Corey Cott’s Donny and Laura Osnes’ Julia each gain sympathy for their predicaments and admiration for their handling of the music. They romp through the jive stuff and give emotional potency to the various expressions of aspiration and anger.

James Nathan Hopkins, Brandon J. Ellis, Alex Bender, Geoff Packard and Joe Carroll aptly define the other members of the band with nicely drawn distinctive touches.

The individualisation of the band members is probably the script’s strongest element as well. On the other hand, Beth Leavel manages smartly to get some pay-off from a series of wan laugh lines as Julia’s mother.

For director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, the show is a further validation of his skills. He already has two Tony Awards for his choreography for Hamilton and In The Heights. Here his dance numbers have a macho strength in suggesting the men at war, while his swing dancing has an explosive athleticism. He also has guided his actors into some affectingly truthful moments, even when the turns in story register as a bit hokey.

His staging also has an inventive fluidity, using well the unit set design by David Korins, which unfortunately has a drabness that threatens to permeate through to a large chunk of the show. Things get considerably brighter and sleeker once the band makes it to New York.

Bandstand was the tail end of the big parade of musicals marching through the just-ended 2016/17 Broadway season. It’s not a washout, but one could have hoped for a brighter finish.

         Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Hello, Dolly! – Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York – Review

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