Theater Review: Bandstand Is a Musical About (and Evocative of) the Golden Age

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Onstage in Bandstand, at the Jacobs. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

In order to explain what’s good about Bandstand, a serious-minded original musical opening on Broadway tonight, it helps to know what’s bad about some of its predecessors on the Boulevard of Broken Ideas. Just the other night, Anastasia showed us how the attempt to squeeze light romantic entertainment out of the Russian revolution is unlikely to result in a potable concoction. The night before that, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory demonstrated the folly of toughening up a beloved story until all its charm is lost. In both cases, top-notch artists did not seem to realize that the hit movies their shows were based on play by different rules from musical theater. Onstage, if you show a family being executed, or a child being turned into a blueberry and then exploding, you can’t expect an audience to forget about it while you move on to a cute comedy number. A narrative so constructed denies itself, like a bad-faith driver who insists he knows where he’s going even as everyone else can see the car veering wildly off course.

Bandstand, on the other hand, has the courage of its convictions. It is really about what it’s really about, which broadly speaking is the damage war does to combatants and the further damage sometimes done by peace. Yes, it’s the first PTSD musical. I’m not saying it’s perfectly carried out, or even especially profound, but as directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who created the musical staging for Hamilton, it remains almost compulsively faithful to its vision and never asks you to choose between what it’s showing you and what you know to be true. Unlike too many musicals, it matches itself. To take the simplest example: Because it’s a show about a swing-band contest to celebrate troops returning from World War II, its score is mostly swing. (Richard Oberacker wrote the music and, with Rob Taylor, the lyrics.) And because the story (also by Oberacker and Taylor) makes a big deal about the restorative power of music-making, the show is cast with performers who can actually play. What you hear from the six-man band onstage is really coming from onstage, albeit with support from the pit beneath it. Not irrelevantly, it’s good.

Authenticity is not the same as believability, though, and the story isn’t exactly a natural. It concerns a recently sprung infantryman named Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) who, after losing his best friend during a skirmish in the Solomon Islands, returns to his native Cleveland to console the friend’s wife and resume his piano career. Neither goes as planned: Clubs aren’t hiring and he can’t bring himself to tell the wife, Julia (Laura Osnes), the awful circumstances of her husband’s death. Still, when Donny hears about the contest that NBC Radio and MGM are sponsoring, he resolves to put together a band of veterans to enter and win it. Each of the men he recruits is assigned an emotional war wound as specific as his instrument: Davy on bass (Brandon J. Ellis) drinks; Johnny on drums (Joe Carroll) is “slow”; Nick on trumpet (Alex Bender) has a temper; Wayne on trombone (Geoff Packard) has OCD; Jimmy on sax (James Nathan Hopkins) … well, he’s in law school. Donny himself is racked with guilt. And wouldn’t you know it, Julia, who has frozen herself in gold-star-widow amber, is a superior swing vocalist.

The darkness of the background does not mean that the show forswears entertainment; Bandstand understands and depends on the fact that people who are hurt still joke and dream big. The point is that the entertainment is congruent; it arises from the story, not despite it. Aside from the catchy tunes, that means tons of dancing; the show moves virtually nonstop. Blankenbuehler’s choreography is built here (unlike in Hamilton) on swing patterns, but he has grafted onto them his typical expressionist gestural vocabulary. If this sometimes gets semaphoric, at other times it is deeply communicative. In one powerful number, the band members are shown literally dragging their wartime ghosts around with them. On the other hand, the show’s unironic style cannot overcome certain musical-theater facts: If you intercut the sounds of artillery fire with a fusillade of tapping, as Bandstand does in its opening gesture, you risk seeming too earnest and even gauche. It would take a great deal more Fosse smarm to reconcile the material’s gloom with its pep.

Nor does the story totally eschew Broadway-musical cheese and shortcuts. Interpolated jokes, obvious tensioning devices, and ginned-up climaxes all make an appearance, and the hoariest workshop formulas are observed. (If Donny has a secret he must reveal to earn Julia’s trust, she must have a secret too.) Worse, the show traffics to some extent in the kind of thank-you-for-your-service heartstring-yanking that its characters complain of. But in general the machinery of commercial entertainment is not used in bad faith, and the leads, at least, are quite adept at tucking the more obviously audience-baiting elements into their characterizations. Cott, who showed promise in the disaster that was Gigi, here fulfills it, fusing charm and angst into a real leading-man performance. (His unexpectedly dramatic “I Want” song, called simply “Donny Novitski,” helps.) And Osnes, long established as the lovely leading-lady type, here pushes beyond the primness that has sometimes made her come across as white bread. For the first time she seems willing to show us that something big and difficult is at stake in her romantic arc.

Because Bandstand’s authors are respectful of the 1940s setting, that arc is slow in cresting, with (spoiler alert) the first big kiss delayed until nearly the end of the show. That’s not the only element that’s reminiscent of Golden Age musical theater. Writing about difficult things in the form of a popular entertainment is the chief resemblance; Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t doubt that musicals could explore subjects like racism and domestic abuse without diminishing their seriousness. Bandstand also takes cues from the mid-century expectation that music in musicals should be plainly entertaining. (The score includes a lovely Gershwin pastiche called “Love Will Come Find Me Again” and a flat-out barn burner of a second-act opener whose excellent hook is “No one tells me no.”) There’s even a would-be Aunt Eller figure in Julia’s salty mom, though Beth Leavel, unrecognizable, is vastly underused in the role.

It would be easy to oversell this peculiar show in light of the stinkers that preceded it. And although it features some Golden Age attributes it is hardly at Golden Age level. But an original musical with loads of fun music, expressive dance, and a will to grapple with issues that remain painfully topical is not to be dismissed glibly. If nothing else it may serve as a reminder that history and real human behavior are the proper subjects of musical storytelling, not dismissible impediments to it.

Bandstand is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Theater: Bandstand Invokes Broadway’s Golden Age