Sunday, May 21, 2017

Broadway’s “Bandstand” a swinging love-affair with Cleveland

“Bandstand—The New American Musical,” the Broadway hit musical, is Cleveland-centric.  It not only tells the tale of a post-World War II band which was founded in CLE, includes dialogue containing such area references as the Ohio Theatre, Halle’
s Department Store, “The Plain Dealer,” Public Square, and The Cleveland Limited train which ran to New York, but also stars an area native. 

It’s 1945. G.I.s are returning home.  Many are having troubles due to what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders including depression, memory loss, and obsessive compulsivity.

Danny Novitski (Corey Cott), a jazz pianist, comes home to Cleveland, and like many others, can’t get back into his previous life pattern.  In his case, as a local club piano player.  Danny has survivor guilt.  His best friend died because Danny took the pin out of a hand grenade, accidentally dropped it into their fox hole, couldn’t retrieve it in the rain, jumped out of the hole, and the explosive device killed his long-time buddy.

Danny finds out about a national contest, centering on forming a musical group of veterans who will write and perform an original song and compete in a competition held in New York with a prize of fame and fortune.

Johnny puts together a group of psychologically wounded vets.  In a promise to his dead friend, he contacts his friend’s bereaved widow, who happens to be a church choir singer and poet.  As is the case in all feel good musical love stories, she joins the band, they win the Cleveland contest and then the qualifying round, and the two fall in love.  The contest results are part of a clever plot twist that leaves the audience feeling pleased and standing on their feet and cheering.

With a nicely conceived book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, who also wrote the lyrics, and Oberacker’s swing, bebop and jitterbug musical score, the show earns its’ “The New American Musical” subtitle.  It is a musical based on the tradition of the golden age of Broadway, but with a modern feel. 

The production, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (“In The Heights” and “2016 Tony Award winner for his choreography of “Hamilton”) explodes with brassy music and dynamic choreography, while telling the tale with strong acting, dancing and singing.

Laura Osnes (Julia Trojan, the widow of Johnny’s friend), Beth Leavel (Julia’s mother) and Corey Cott, have been with the development “Bandstand” from the script’s September, 2014 initial New York workshop, through the October, 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, New Jersey) previews, to its April 26, 2017 Broadway opening. 

Osnes has a strong singing voice and creates a charming and realistic Julia.  Her “Who I Was” is emotionally touching, her first presentation of “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” is beautifully presented, and the “rewritten” version, which is the band’s contest performance, stopped the show with its high-level emotional words and presentation.  This is a two-hanky song!

Leavel has a nice touch with humor and pathos.

Chagrin Falls native Corey Cott is talent-perfect as Tommy.  Cott, who is dark and handsome, though not the stereotype Broadway leading man, tall and buff, is successfully making a career of playing sensitive young men.  He was the lead for two years in the much praised “Newsies” and then went on to star opposite Vanessa Hudgens in the revival of “Gigi.”  He was born to play Tommy.  A trained jazz pianist, he has an impressive singing voice and range, and is totally convincing in the role.  He, as well as all the members of the veterans’ band, actually play their musical instruments on stage. 

Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler deserves his 2017 Tony nomination for the choreography.  It is innovative, era correct and helps create the proper mood and tone for the script. 

Paloma Young must have had a wonderful time reaching back and creating the 1950s era costumes.

The orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen are enervating and well-nuanced and properly deserved its Tony nomination.

Capsule judgement: “Bandstand” isn’t a great musical, but the well-conceived production has the music, storyline, dancing and patriotism to make the show a touring company favorite when it hits the hinterlands.  In the meantime, it deserves a healthy run on the Great White Way.  

What: “Bandstand”
Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday