Good, old-fashioned American grit and determination get adrenalized in the ambitious musical BANDSTAND. The star of the show is the non-stop, uber-kinetic movement and dance by Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directs, fresh off his dazzling, award-winning choreography for the phenomenal HAMILTION.
It’s Cleveland, 1945, just after World War II has ended, and infantryman Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), traumatized by the loss of his best friend in a Pacific skirmish, returns home, ready to resume his passion playing the piano and to console his buddy’s widow, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). But Donny neither can find club gigs nor tell Julia the truth about her husband’s death in the foxhole. Julia, it just so happens, is not only a swing vocalist but also a song writer. With encouragement from her mother, June (Beth Leaval), to get beyond her mourning, Julia joins up with Donny who forms a band with other local unemployed, displaced veterans. The new group enters a national competition, sponsored by NBC Radio and MGM, to compose and perform a song for performance in a Hollywood movie musical. The guys are a “Lifeboat” cast of scarred emotion: trombonist Wayne (Geoff Packard) is an obsessive/compulsive; drummer Johnny (Joe Carroll) is dim-witted; bass man Davy (Brandon J. Ellis) drinks a lot; trumpeter Nick (Alex Bender) is hot-tempered and violence-prone; and, saxophonist Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins) a law student thinks convention leads to normalcy.
Act 2 takes everybody to the radio studio competition in Manhattan where cruel show-biz realities prevail and Donny purges himself of the facts about Julia’s husband’s death. Donny and Julia’s boy-meets- girl scenario concludes not unsurprisingly. As for guys in the band, well, it’s not clear what happens to them.
The score by Richard Oberacker doesn’t strictly conform to the Big Band sound of the 1940s, and adopts variations of popular jazz and a lot of contemporary Broadway balladry. Musical arrangements by Greg Anthony Rassen keep the 17 numbers flowing in and of Oberacker and Rob Taylor’s book, the least distinguished feature of the show. There’s a stupid joke made at the expense of Julia’s married name, Trojan: in the army his buddies nicknamed her husband “Rubber". It’s puzzling how this survived the workshop process.
Most distinctive about the orchestrations and the cast, too, is that Donny and all the band members actually play their own instruments, sometimes augmented by a pit orchestra. Each is an accomplished musician, or accomplished enough. (Mr. Cott spent two years learning how to play the piano.)
The cast is generally excellent. Mr. Cott, who made his Broadway debut in Disney’s NEWSIES and starred in the short-lived GIGI two seasons ago, of lean build and slender frame, suggests a wiry, anxious Donny with the neurotic drive to succeed. The most powerful performance comes from Laura Osnes, last seen on Broadway in the title role of RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA, who somehow navigates the book’s weak links and conveys a widow’s pain giving way to youthful hope through her stirring vocals. Smartly, she performs in 12 of the 17 musical numbers, with three solos, including the emotional 11o’clock number “Welcome Home”. The enormously appealing musical comedy veteran Beth Leavel, who won all the major awards in 2006 for the title role in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, is sadly underutilized. Her role is almost inconsequential: she briefly reprises one song in Act 1, but has a lovely, wistfully melodic solo, “Everything Happens” in Act 2.
What really saves BANDSTAND from being just a respectable, ho-hum musical is Blankenbuehler’s stage movement and choreography. BANDSTAND has only two fixed sets - an all purpose Cleveland club and streetscape in Act 1 and radio studio with Manhattan backdrop in Act 2. Blankenbuehler creates scene changes by the constant movement of the large ensemble. It’s almost as if the choreography composes the scene - from the stylized movement of fallen soldiers in the battle memories of band members to the raucous partying of club patrons on a night on the town. Blankenbuehler perhaps has the most versatile movement vocabulary of any Broadway choreographer these days. Still, it’s the big number dance routines, which keep on coming one after another, that really pack power, especially Blankenbuehler’s interpretation of the jitterbug. BANDSTAND’s ensemble is hands-down the most athletic on Broadway, and at its peak in the show-stopping “You Deserve It” in Act 1.
As musicals dealing with WWII, BANDSTAND is hardly as memorable as beloved classics like Leonard Bernstein’s ON THE TOWN or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC, but Blankenbuehler integrates dance and movement with story and music with undeniable distinction. And BANDSTAND has the talent that delivers on his creativity. Who can argue with a knee slide that runs from deep stage right across to front stage left? Wow.
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