| May 8, 2017


Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NYC, April 29, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

Corey Cott & Laura Osnes

Bandstand, now at the Jacobs Theatre, takes a more emotional and realistic look at returning World War II soldiers than many familiar post-war musicals like South Pacific. The focus highlights veterans struggling with PTSD during a can-do era of spirited jitterbugs and jazz bands. The men, emotionally disabled, return to a country with shifting values and broken relationships, but it is through their music that they work to regain their place in society.    

With 1940s-style jazz and blues by composer Richard Oberacker with Rob Taylor’s  lyrics (the latter also wrote the book), the plot follows pianist/singer Donny Novitzki (Corey Cott) who returns home to Cleveland, ready to pick up his music career. Unfortunately, he finds jobs scarce and auditioning unbearable, as he is tortured by battle memories and dead comrades.  Life is no longer “Just Like It Was Before,” as the opening song promises. When he hears about a radio contest offering a chance to perform an original patriotic song on a nationwide broadcast, he decides to give it a try by getting a band of musicians together. “I Know a Guy” musically reveals that he has veteran pals who are good players who are also suffering with PTSD and its consequences. That becomes his band.

Since Donny is primarily tormented by the death of one of his buddies in battle, he decides to contact the fallen vet’s widow, Julia Trojan. Played by Laura Osnes, Julia is living with her mother (Beth Leavel) and trying to move through life, but finds her joy is in singing. Since Donny’s band has problems kicking into gear, he decides they need a vocalist and eventually Julia, encouraged by Donny and her mother, joins the band as they set out to win the radio contest and step back into American life. A lovely singer and actress, Osnes owns her solo, a bluesy promise that “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.”

Laura Osnes & Beth Leavel

Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) sets moods of conflict and despondency that the kinetic rhythms of jazz slowly lift into optimism. Oberacker and Taylor’s score, with punches of contemporary rhythms, is fierce and athletic, reminiscent of ’40s swing.  On a multi-purpose set by David Korin, Blankenbuehler designed vigorous jitterbug swings and tosses until, at some point, one of the instrumentalists is hit with a calamitous flashback and the indefatigable twirling dances move into stylized slow motion. A sense of despair blankets the stage. Each of the players struggles with his haunting memories and ghosts, but they persevere toward the end, when the band again faces another challenge: to take a stand and demand what they deserve. 

Corey Cott & Laura Osnes & cast

Cott (Newsies) and Osnes (Cinderella), both attractive performers, are also both expressive singers and define their characters, and their slowly-growing romance, with nuance. Donny has a hot-tempered edge, but also vulnerability and a strong determination to smooth out his life. Osnes, in a more dramatic role than usual, is compelling as Julia starts out grieving and just trying to survive —- until she blooms on stage with the joy of singing. In the band, it is Julia who stands out. Her finale, “Welcome Home,” is the electrifying hub of the show, as she passionately sings of all the returning soldiers and the horrors they now live with. Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) makes the most of her small role as Julia’s supportive and saucy mother. 

Laura Osnes & cast

Boosted by the orchestra in the pit, the actors play their instruments live while portraying problems with marriages, drink, and depression. Kudos to this versatile group: Alex Bender as Nick Radel; James Nathan Hopkins (Jimmy Campbell); Joe Carroll (Johnny Simpson); Brandon J. Ellis (Davy Zlatic); and Geoff Packard (Wayne Wright). Paloma Young dressed the cast in period-perfect costumes, and Jeff Croiter designed creative, often bleak lighting design.

Bandstand takes a hard look at veterans’ problems, and also brings to mind the recent unfortunate cutbacks on the arts. This is an intense story, yet uplifted by high-flying energetic song and dance, humor, strong performers, and the life-affirming promise of music. 

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Category: Broadway Reviews, Musical Theatre Reviews, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Reviews, Regional

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