Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review of "Bandstand"

In this jam-packed Broadway season of 13 new musicals where glitz, style, and innovation seem the norm, it is comforting to sit back and enjoy the more old-fashioned, yet still vibrant, musical Bandstand.  The show has a well-conceived story, endearing characters, and the always vigorous and original choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler.

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes and members of the cast of "Bandstand."

The libretto of the show follows a traditional, conventional path.  Returning World War II G.I. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a jazz piano enthusiast, can’t find work.  Still despondent over the death of his best buddy during the fighting and without luck finding a job tickling the ivories, he forms his own band, consisting of war veterans, to compete in a coast-to-coast music contest.  He convinces the wife of his former pal, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), to be lead singer, and they take on the nightclub scene in Cleveland by storm on their way to New York and the big-time.  Will they win?  Will he get the girl?  It’s not as pat as you think.

Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker’s book of the show, while straightforward, seems fresh with a finely-honed cast of characters.  The backstories the two have created for each performer enriches the plot without weighing down the flow and pacing of the musical.  They have inserted bumps in the road, giving the story a more realistic ambiance.  While there is an overall, feel-good quality to the production, Taylor and Richard Oberacker deftly weave in the horrors of war and the very real, debilitating problems returning servicemen face.  This gives the musical more heft and seriousness as opposed to, for example, the frothiness of an MGM movie musical.
Members of Broadway's "Bandstand."

The score by Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor pays homage to the jazzy music scene in post WWII America.  There are crackling numbers for the newly formed combo as well as heartrending songs that beautifully and achingly portray a country moving forward from the personal traumas of war.  All the actors play their own instruments.  The authenticity gives an added vibrancy and passion to the production.

The cast boasts one of the largest group of well-developed characters of any of the new Broadway musicals.  The two leads, Corey Cott as Donny Novitski, and Laura Osnes as Julia Trojan, are a winning and appealing twosome.  Cott, breaking free from the bon vivant role he played in his last Broadway role in the musical Gigi, is intense and earnest, giving his character multi-layered levels of emotions and feelings from rage to desperation to guilt to compassion.  You feel his angst and silently hope for his triumph.  He is well-paired with Ms. Osnes who starts off as a withdrawn, bitter war widow, but gradually gains new-found confidence to succeed as a singer and a person in love.  The actress, a waif of a woman, has a powerhouse vocal delivery and a radiance to light up any stage.
The cast from "Bandstand."

The supporting cast, all playing WWII veterans, is a colorful group, expressively drawn and dramatically rendered.  They are James Nathan Hopkins as the well-adjusted saxophone player, Jimmy Campbell; Brandon J. Ellis as the life-of-the-party, yet forlorn bass player, Davy Zlatic; Alex Bender as the hot-tempered, but dutiful trumpet player, Nick Radel; Geoff Packard as the OCD afflicted trombone player, Wayne Wright; and Joe Carroll as the seemingly TBI drummer, Johnny Simpson.  Beth Leavel gives an assured and mother-knows-best performance as Ms. Osnes’ stage mother, Mrs. June Adams.
Director-Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, once again, demonstrates why he is one of the most innovative and creative forces on Broadway.  No one has a better feel for the movement of actors, whether on stage or moving them to and from the performing space.  There is a raw elegance to the way he positions and maneuvers the cast and ensemble members.  Individuals don’t just walk out front, but do so in a stylized fashion.  The simple undertaking of moving an upright piano on stage, for example, becomes an abstract representation of the pain and hardship the musicians face.

Bandstand, an old-time story accentuated with dynamism and inspiration.

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