By Tulis McCall
Bandstand is a musical that treads the razor’s edge – is it a romance or is it a veterans’ salute? It is both, and makes no apologies. At times it also makes no sense, but the underpinning, which is the cost of war, carries the day. The opening number Just Like It Was Before puts us on notice that the world is filled with double meanings. Set in Cleveland in the latter half of 1945, this is the story of one G.I., Pfc. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) who makes it home with all his ghosts in tact. One of them was his best pal, Michael. Donny was there when Michael died – they were stationed in the Pacific – and now that he is home he does what he promised he would do and visits Michael’s widow Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). And before you go any further, yes, I too wondered at this last name. No explanation is ever given, and this unfortunate choice stands out like, well, you know.
Donny is a piano man (as is Cott, and how refreshing it is to see these actors playing their own instruments). Aside from being instantly smitten by Julia (of course) he is also looking for work. He hits upon an idea to enter a contest with a band that not only will play FOR the vets but be made up entirely of vets. One by one he pulls these men in, Nick (Alex Bender), Johnny (Joe Carroll), Davy (Brandon James Ellis), Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins), and Wayne (Geoff Packard). They, too, have their ghosts. One drinks too much. One is suicidal. One has memory lapses. All varying forms of what we would today call PTSD, but what was, back in the day, swept under the rug. The soldiers coming home form WWII had no listeners for their trauma. They were expected to come home, celebrate, breed and buy everything they could afford. The Greatest Generation was put on notice to become the first Consumer Generation.
This story is what happened to them in between the battled field and building suburbia. Once Donny and Julia meet, it is only a matter of time before she joins the band and brings a set of pipes that is just what the doctor ordered. As a widow, she brings that other side of war. Men prepare for the order of war; women prepare for the disorder. She also brings her own poetry that soon becomes music. The journey to the battle of the bands is on track.
Plotwise, this becomes a little too sweet as nothing much de-rails this train. Oh, there is the money that has to be raised. And there is the truth about how Michael died. But through it all there is never a question that this band will succeed and that Donny and Julia are destined to be together.
What saves this from death by saccharine is the raw nerves of these veterans. They seem too young to be that wounded, and there are those of us in the audience – we of a certain age – who remember our parents and the Memorial Day parades with the marching veterans. We remember the band music that played in our homes before the invasion of rock and roll. We remember the pictures. The uniforms. The pinned up hair. We remember that we baby boomers were born to a wounded generation who, for the most part, never discussed their war experience. They never had a chance to. They grew up rebounding from WWI, got catapulted into WWII and leapt into the 1950’s with no maps to guide them.
It is their story that trails after you when you leave the theatre, much like the ghosts belonging to these characters.
It is too bad that the authors were not able to take a pair of clippers to the book, and the stunning lack of a resolution doesn’t help. When the curtain call arrives it catches us off guard, and all we can do is cheer the performers and leave bewildered, wondering what we missed. Not the performances, nor the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler – which are superb in the extreme. Cott and Osnes positively crackle and the ensemble work is spectacular in every way. But the basics of “beginning, middle and end” got left behind at the train depot. And all the big band music in the world doesn’t quite make up for that.
Credits Music by Richard Oberacker; Book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Cast Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Beth Leavel, Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, Mary Callanan, Max Clayton, Patrick Connaghan, Matt Cusack, Andrea Dotto, Marc A. Heitzman, Ryan Kasprzak, Andrew Leggieri, Erica Mansfield, Morgan Marcell, Drew McVety, Kevyn Morrow, Jessica Lea Patty, Becca Petersen, Kevin Quillon, Jonathan Shew, Ryan VanDenBoom, Jaime Verazin, Mindy Wallace, and Kevin Worley
Scenes Design David Korins, Costume Design Paloma Young, Lighting Design Jeff Crofter, Sound Design Nevin Sternberg, Music Supervisor and Arranger Greg Anthony Rassen
Tom Smedes, Gabrielle Pautz, Terry Schnuck, Tom Kirdahy, Roger Horchow, Peter Stern Michael, Pautz Jane Dubin, David Lyons, Sarah Perot,James L. Hederlahder, James & Catherine Berges, Darren Deverna & Jere Harris, Jeff & Ellen Adler, Nancy & Randy Best, Deep End Productions, Patty Baker, Terry D. Loftis/Scoti D. Huffman, Independent Presenters Network/Charles & Lisa Siegel, Rosie Gunther Mccooe/J. Scott & Sylvia G. Bechtel, Roy Putrino/Heather Shields, Diane & John Kalishman/Alison & John Ferring, And The Shubert Organization, In Association With Paper Mill Playhouse Present BANDSTAND, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 Find Tickets