NOTES: Checking in on “Bandstand” one last time
I checked in to see “Bandstand” one last time this week before it plays its final performance on Sunday, September 17th. I was reminded, on my third viewing, just how well crafted, high energy, and fast-paced the show is. Sitting in the mezzanine for the first time, I gained a new appreciation for Andy Blankenbuehler’s terrific, Tony-winning choreography; David Korins’s malleable set; and Jeff Croiter’s impressive lighting design. And I agree with Lin-Manuel Miranda, "best jazz score since either Jelly's Last Jam or City Of Angels, take your pick."
I wondered back in April if “Bandstand”—the last new musical to open in a crowded Broadway season boasting 12 new musicals—would be overlooked and underappreciated; the months since have proven that concern correct. On Tuesday night, the mezzanine of the Jacobs was half-full, but the audience fully engaged, offering roars of applause following each number by the Donny Nova Band, a scattered mid-show standing ovation following Act II’s haunting “Welcome Home”, and a rapturous curtain call. It’s safe to say “Bandstand” was an audience favorite, if not a critical or commercial success.
In looking back over last season, it’s become very clear that Corey Cott’s intense, generous, and full-throated turn as bandleader Donny Novitski remains the most underappreciated performance on Broadway. Luckily, the show has been preserved on a fantastic cast recording that captures its spirit, energy, and pure musicality. The show isn’t perfect—few are—but “Bandstand” was my kind of musical: a good old fashioned, original, well-crafted show with snazzy tunes, a heartfelt story, great direction, and some of the best damn dancing in town.
You can read my previously unpublished review from April below.
REVIEW: “Bandstand” deserves to be seen
By Robert Russo
April 26, 2017
“Bandstand”, the last new musical of the season, which opened tonight at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, challenges us to think about those who serve in uniform and experience the horror of war in a new light, deftly providing a hefty message via good old-fashioned musical comedy.
The opening chords of this sleek musical signal it’s not your typical, triumphant post-World War II romp, and this discord is explored in penetrating, occasionally clumsy fashion throughout. The setting for this original story is 1945 Cleveland, Ohio. Donny Novitski, played by Corey Cott, that ever-handsomely grinning boy next door who packs a cool set of pipes and equally terrific acting chops, has returned home from the Pacific theatre. A childhood accordion prodigy, Donny can dazzle those ivory keys and write a good tune to boot. As he and his fellow Americans yearn for life to be “just like it was before,” opportunity strikes in the form of a national song competition honoring the veterans and sponsored by Bayer Aspirin, a glib reminder of that brazenly American value of monetizing patriotism.
Donny assembles a band wholly composed by fellow vets—a gimmick he rightly assesses will give them an edge in the competition—who are joined by Julia Trojan, the wife of a buddy (“Rubber”) killed in action; played by the perennially pleasing Laura Osnes, Julia happens to harbor the voice of an angel, honed at Sunday services no less, and the elegant quill of a poet-turned-lyricist, which comes in handy for our protagonist Donny. This motley crew encounter a parade of obstacles in their bid to win state and make it to the national competition in New York, the dream Donny and “Rubber” so often regaled one another with while dodging bullets incoming from the Japanese.
What elevates “Bandstand” is the humanity brought to the characters. As they stumble and soar to the final competition, we learn a great deal about Donny and his band. Unlike the merry veterans Hollywood and history give us, these guys suffer from alcoholism, flirt with suicide, struggle to adjust to life as civilians, and confront the brutal reality that their fellow Americans love to celebrate them as tokens (support the troops!) but fail to truly understand and support them.
The always excellent Beth Leavel gives a notable, comic yet heartfelt performance as Mrs. June Adams, mother of Ms. Osnes’ Julia, and the ensemble pulsates and jives to the well-crafted period music that feels fresh and ably steers clear of pastiche. In 2017, fresh off the heels of “La La Land” and #Oscarssowhite, it is a tad odd to stumble upon a 1940s jazz scene in Cleveland that doesn’t contain a person of color. In fact, but for a single performer, this entire cast is white. An unfortunate, unforced error that is noticeable.
Cott and Osnes give rich and rewarding performances, star-turns even, but the real star of this production is director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuhler, of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” fame. Here, in his second outing wearing both hats, Mr. Blankenbuhler solidifies his place as a master storyteller and dancemaker. Sections of this show move with effortless and ecstatic ease, proving the difference between choreography and mere steps. The act two topper “Nobody” is a showstopper, and moments of dance, peppered throughout, reveal the internal struggles of our vets with piercing effect. Mr. Blankenbuhler presents beautifully polished paragraphs of evocative, intentional movement based on a specific vocabulary and backed by composer Richard Oberacker’s snazzy and hummable tunes. But as first time book writers, Mr. Oberacker and partner Rob Taylor’s dialogue and plot turns are too-often banal. The subtlety so present everywhere else in the production, flowing from the dance to the smart settings by David Korins and excellent period costumes by Paloma Young, doesn’t pour as smoothly from the playwrights’ pens; it can be disappointing, but is never fatal.
There is much to celebrate and applaud in this new musical, which dares to delve into some amazingly uncharted territory—the true experience of World War II’s returning heroes, warts and all. It delights, moves, and entertains as well as the best of them, and in a crowded spring season, deserves to be seen.