Bandstand is the kind of struggling-Midwest-veterans-make-it-big-in-show-biz story that might’ve starred a young Dan Dailey, a simple tale with a big heart.
It’s 1945. Cue lights, explosive sounds, fallen soldiers. Donny Novitski (Corey Scott) loses his best friend Michael. He returns home to Cleveland emotionally shattered with plans to resume life as a musician (pianist). The club in which he performed, however, has hired an 18 year-old. Confident in his talent, Donny applies all over town. (The innocent nature of the piece dictates that he never attempts to find work as anything other than a musician.) “Just Like It Was Before” turns out to be an illusion.
Corey Cott, Laura Osnes
A national contest sponsored by the American Songbook of Popular Music and Bayer Aspirin (do you think they pay for product placement?) offers pie-in-the-sky hope. The winning band will perform their original song in an MGM film. Donny puts together a skeptical group comprised of veterans from every branch of the service. Each recommends another. Each has his own credible, well indicated issues.
Wry, self aware Bassist Davy (Brandon J. Ellis) drinks. Sweet Drummer Johnny (Joe Carroll), a bit slow due to mortar fire, is often high. Trombonist Wayne (Geoff Packard), inordinately stressed about supporting a wife and children and Trumpet Player Nick (Alex Bender) are short tempered; (Nick is also judgmental). Saxophonist Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins), the only level headed participant, often finds himself acting as peacemaker. Donny is bandleader, vocalist, songwriter, and pianist. He could, as Jimmy points out, use some social skills. These multifaceted actors also sing and play instruments live onstage. Ellis, Carroll, and Packard stand out with characterization.
Laura Osnes and Beth Leavel
Wait-you object- where’s the love story? Donny has promised to check up on Michael’s widow, Julia (Laura Osnes), who lives with her mother (the warm, excellent Beth Leavel). Surprise, it turns out she sings! And writes poetry aka lyrics! Though Donny has a secret which might alienate the incipient couple, Julia joins the band. She insists on using her married name out of respect for Michael. (The show brims with patriotism and integrity.) The contest outcome is not as expected for reasons even less predictable. A pretty good plot.
Both Laura Osnes and Corey Cott are fine singers and good actors imbuing their roles with straight from the hip sincerity. One wishes them better luck next time.
Front: Joe Carroll, James Nathan Hopkins, Alex Bender, Geoff Packard; Back: Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Brandon J. Ellis
Muddy arrangements (Greg Anthony Rassen) of music that lack not only 1940s flavor but actual melody conflict with unoriginal lyrics which neither sync nor sing. (Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker) In a show about a band! Choreography that shows up outside of actual (skilled) dance numbers, serves to perpetually distract and busy-up the stage. Except for the omnipresent club, David Korins’ Set Design is some of the ugliest I’ve seen, completely discordant with the tone of this story. Paloma Young’s Costumes are almost uniformly drab and unflattering. The book is the best thing about this piece. It has grit, wit and sincerity.
While Director Andy Blankenbuehler works well with his actors, overall action is often a mess. See choreography comment above.
In different hands, this might’ve been a genial, vivacious show with a future in national touring.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Corey Cott, Laura Osnes and The Company
Music by Richard Oberacker
Book & Lyrics by Rob Taylor & Richard Oberacker
Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street