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 battle 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.
(Photo by Jermey Daniel)
What the popular press says...
"“Bandstand,” an openhearted, indecisive new musical, wants you clapping your hands and clenching your fists, tapping your toes and blinking back tears. It is both a peppy celebration of can-do spirit and a more somber exploration of what American servicemen experienced when they marched home from World War II."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
"Music soothes the savage beast and — apparently — shell shocked servicemen. That’s the prevailing wisdom of “Bandstand,” the well-meaning mishmash of a musical at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) doesn’t stint on period vitality; the terrific group dance numbers, including an Act I showstopper called “You Deserve It,” burst with snazzy individuality. But Bandstand’s heart is in its shadows—the entertainers often share the stage with ghosts of lost comrades—and in the persistence of its efforts to shed light on them... The show defies you not to be moved by its valiant band of brothers."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"With nary a false note in this revised production, "Bandstand" creates sweet harmony from the dissonance of war."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Uneasily attempting to be simultaneously a feel-good, swinging musical and a serious depiction of post-traumatic stress, Bandstand is at war with itself... For all the strenuous effort and good intentions evident in Bandstand, it mainly demonstrates that if you’re going to drop the name Dachau in a musical, it needs to be far better than this one."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"There’s a different “band of brothers” on stage in “Bandstand,” the earnest and often-entertaining musical that, set immediately following WWII, never quite achieves its noble ambitions. Despite the fluid staging and evocative choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), an uneven book, undistinguished dialogue and only-serviceable tunes keep the show from meeting its deeper, darker and good-intentioned aspirations."
Frank Rizzo for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...