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A CurtainUp Review
The masterful choreographer of Hamilton has teamed up with Richard Oberacker (music, book and lyrics), Rob Taylor (book and lyrics) and a group of first-class designers to concoct a show that mixes music inspired by the swing era with an overall sensibility that's up-to-the-minute. The result is equally appealing to the ear and the eye. Since Bandstand is emotionally complex and largely unsentimental, it's likely to connect with the intellect and the heart of spectators of many, perhaps all, ages. But what audiences will remember most is Blankenbuehler's stunning dances performed by a talented corps of idiosyncratic Broadway professionals.
Bandstand, which isn't based on any underlying work, concerns a group of Ohioans reassembling their lives after the disruptions of World War Two. Set in 1945, the action passes largely in Cleveland but concludes with a fairy-tale vision of post-war New York City.
Early in the show, a big-band singer croons: "The boys are coming home / The flags are flying high . . . Before you know it / It'll be just like it was before." Those lyrics would fit comfortably in White Christmas, Irving Berlin's 1954 motion picture (more recently, a Broadway show) with its sweet-as-pie vision of post-war America. But for the characters of Bandstand, things aren't settling back to what they were. Oberacker and Taylor's script and songs keep the traumas of war and demobilization in sight throughout.
Just out of the Army and home from Manila, Donny Novitski (Cory Cott) is burdened with survivor's guilt (his best wartime buddy was killed by friendly fire). Hoping to get his pop-music career back on track, Donny auditions for numerous clubs, but the jobs he wants are filled by people who didn't go to war. Hearing about a song competition that could get him from Cleveland to New York, with a chance of appearing on a national radio broadcast and in a movie musical, Donny assembles a group of war veterans with musical chops and starts writing patriotic songs.
Bandstand is a Broadway musical set at a time considered in retrospect to be the golden age of American musical theater when George Abbott, with his sunny aesthetic, was writing and fixing Broadway shows. Oberacker and Taylor have created characters who are more complex and, on the whole, grittier than those encountered in musical plays of Mr. Abbott's day.
Donny's comrades include the alcoholic Davy (Brandon J. Ellis); Johnny (Joe Carroll), brain damaged and in constant pain from an incident in the war; Nick (Alex Bender), embittered by the drudgery of teaching untalented trumpet students; and Wayne (Geoff Packard), who's returned to civilian life with a passel of phobias and an aversion to intimacy.
In the course of a few weeks, Donny wrangles these four, plus law student Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins), into a combo with real prospects for winning the Ohio preliminaries for the national song competition. Meeting Julia (Laura Osnes), the widow of his lost wartime buddy, Donny finds both a vocalist for the band and romance for himself.
Bandstand is superbly cast with actors who not only sing and dance with aplomb but, in many cases, are fine instrumentalists. The reliable Beth Leavel, who plays Julia's mother, demonstrates her usual impeccable timing. She makes the most of a modest, mostly comedic role, which includes the poignant "Everything That Happens" that expresses an important theme of the show. Singing about the battlefield death of her son-in-law, she rejects the idea that everything happens for a reason. "An event, or a death, a catastrophe," she sings, "Any reason as to why / Is a reason you supply / It just happens." It's not destiny, fate, or a master plan, she says. "Putting faith in that cliche / Gives your own free will away."
David Korins has created a flexible unit set for the show's Cleveland section that allows the action to move fluidly and swiftly from scene to scene. The drab palette of this part of the show — brown, burgundy, and dusty shades of pink — underscores the sentiments in one of the show's best numbers: "I got a theory / It takes a place this dreary / To give a guy the right amount / Of drive to surmount . . . ."
As Donny and his comrades begin their assault on New York, the unit set vanishes and the colors and sleek lines of the Manhattan sets (as well as the complementarily bright lighting by Jeff Croiter and the smart-looking, big-city costumes by Paloma Young) underscore the aspirational tone of the music and lyrics of the show's late scenes. And the evening winds up with a good deal of Broadway razzle-dazzle that would have gladdened Mr. Abbott's heart.
Can this touching, funny, dry martini of a musical, without the name recognition of Hello, Dolly! or Groundhog Day, survive in a Broadway marketplace that summarily dismissed Side Show twice and denied Kander and Ebb's The Visit a respectable run? Time will tell
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Music by Richard Oberacker
Book and lyrics by Robert Taylor
Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Cast of Principals: Laura Osnes (Julia), Corey Cott (Donny), Beth Leavel (Mrs. Adams), Joe Carroll (Johnny), Brandon J. Ellis (Davy), James nathan Hopkins (Jimmy), Geoff Packard (Wayne), Joey Pero (Nick)
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Paloma Young
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg
Makeup, hair and wig design: J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova
Musical Director and Conductor: Fred Lassen
Music Supervision: Mary-Mitchell-Campbell
Orchestrations: Bill Elliott & Greg Anthony Rassen
Music Direction & Vocal Arrangements: David Kreppel
Stage Manager: Mark Dubro
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission
Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
From 3/31/17; opening 4/26/17 2017 ; closing 12/30/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 4/25/17 press preview
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