Corey Cott stars as a World War II veteran trying to readjust to civilian life in the musical "Bandstand," which originated at Paper Mill Playhouse (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
After rocking the Paper Mill in the fall of 2015 with a unique blend of high-powered jazz, tireless swing choreography, and a story full of introspective emotion, “Bandstand” has moved across the river to Broadway, where all of its considerable power rises to new heights.
Horns cry out vividly, dancers twirl and fly, and all the while we learn about the passion and struggles of characters doing their best to make sense of chaotic and frightening lives. It is a stand-up-and-cheer great new musical that should not be missed.
The story (book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker) follows Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a brash young musician recently returned to Cleveland after fighting in World War II. Ebullient public celebrations of the GIs’ return abound, but Donny still struggles to get a gig at any of his old haunts. After hearing of a national contest for the best new song written about war veterans, Donny turns his frustration into determination, assembling a band of vets (the actors play their instruments live on stage) and eventually one gold-star wife, Julia (Laura Osnes), the widow of Donny’s best friend in the war.
The band gains steam in Ohio with a view to making it to New York to perform in the finals of the competition and potentially hit the big time. But gruesome memories of war do not dissipate easily, and each performer labors to balance life in peacetime with a haunting past.
A war-story cliche or two might find space in the script, and the conflict arising from Donny’s insistence on first-class travel might feel a bit forced. But much of the show’s excellence comes from its treatment of the veterans as real people with real problems. As the cast’s fine performances demonstrate, these soldiers are neither grinning boys in uniform nor broken down charity cases. They are instead men who have resolutely been through trauma and are now working to understand and adjust to lives that are irreparably altered.
The opening number, “Just Like It Was Before,” is full of blithe notions of welcoming the boys home from heroic tours of duty, but the show immediately undercuts those pleasant assumptions. The stunning “Welcome Home” that Donny’s band performs to close the show offers a frank rejoinder to the simple narrative. Donny and his bandmates want neither pity nor parades; they want only some recognition of and perhaps a bit of respite from their plights. Music may be a way to achieve such goals.
Cott handles the duties of the show’s lead impressively. His Donny has a take-no-crap chip on his shoulder (“You know who tells me no? Nobody”), but he is at his best when most vulnerable. Troubling news drops Donny to his knees at the end of act one, but Cott’s slow, resolute assent to a stance of determined defiance captures the full range of this character’s rocky adjustment to life at home. The actor never lets us forget that in his real and painful scars, Donny finds motivation.
“Bandstand,” choreographed and directed by “Hamilton” Tony-winner Andy Blankenbuehler, is now playing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)Christopher Kelly | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Osnes masks much of Julia’s grief behind a thinly constructed veil of resilience, releasing it most fully when she sings. Her performance of “Welcome Home” reverberates with raw honesty. Once Julia joins the band fully, Osnes’s emotive vocal performance leads the songs into new, deeper terrain.
Wonderful story and performances notwithstanding, much of “Bandstand’s” dazzle finds root in Andy Blankenbuehler’s direction and choreography. The Tony-winning choreographer of “Hamilton” takes on double duty here, allowing the dancing and progression of the show to work in seamless tandem. Simple changes in David Korins’s nimble set and Paloma Young’s inventive costumes signal important scene changes, while the company fills the stage with high-voltage dance backed by the live band’s energy. The spectacle is busy, yet precise, and a whole lot of fun to watch.
Amidst a sea of revivals and film adaptations on Broadway right now, “Bandstand” distinguishes itself with adventurous creativity and timely, fresh exploration of important themes. It is at bottom an excellent new musical full of wonderful performances and bold, finely crafted music. Here’s hoping for a long run.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street, New York
Tickets: $69-$159; available on www.telecharge.com. On sale through Dec. 30.