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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley


The Bandstand: World Premiere Musical Depicts
Homecoming of War Veterans

Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Also see Cameron's review of A Comedy of Tenors


Laura Osnes, Corey Cott and Cast
Photo by Jerry Dalia
It is 1945. Post World War II America. The Depression and World War II are behind us. A strong post-war economy is gaining steam. The looming Cold War is not even a small blip on most folks' radar. Our war heroes are coming home. Celebration is in the air. This is the setting for the new musical The Bandstand.

In the frantic, compelling and revealing extended opening number, which combines song and dance, and dialogue, we see the joy and celebration which greets the returning vets, and focus in on Cleveland, Ohio, and Donny Novitski and his parents. Despite wistful assurances that everything will be "Just Like It Was Before," it cannot be. Their time in the service has severely disrupted the course of the veterans' lives and exposed them to horrors which have impacted their psyches, sensitivities, and behaviors. Readjustment to the patterns of civilian relationships, and the acquisition of skills needed for newly evolved employments provide further challenges. Typically, those closest to them who have spent the war on the home front do not have the ability to understand what they are going through. Eventually, as the opening number concludes, Donny, who cannot sleep and passes the darkest hours writing swing music on the piano, is angrily confronted by his father for disturbing his sleep, and driven from his parents' house.

Composer-pianist-singer Donny, who supports himself taking local various gigs, forms his own band, signing on only musicians who are veterans of the war. Each of the five musicians hired has issues of varying severity (alcoholism, brain impairment, and dysfunctional behavioral disorders that today are attributed to post traumatic stress disorder) stemming from his service. In this aspect, The Bandstand evokes memories of the classic 1946 movie The Best Years of Our Lives.

Donny pays a visit to Julia, the widow of Michael, a fellow musician and his best Army buddy, in fulfillment of a promise that he had made to Michael before he was killed. Julia, who has been working as a shop girl, is actually a strong, hip singer. Donny convinces her to join the band. Julia even writes lyrics for some of Donny's songs. Her relationship with Donny and the band begins to bring her out of the doldrums.

Donny learns of a state-by-state national band competition whose finalists will appear on a New York based national television program during which a band will be selected to appear in a movie. Donny and the band enter the contest. All of this leads to an exceptionally powerful and moving, show-stopping penultimate scene.

Alas, there is still much work to be done to strengthen the bridge between the superior scenes which essentially bookend The Bandstand. For the balance of the book (the work of librettists Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker) is weak. The dialogue is repetitious. With the exception of Donny, each band member is delineated by one tick which he is called upon to demonstrate over and over again ad nauseum. The plot devices which are employed to temporarily derail the relationship between Donny and Julia, as well as those which extend the jeopardy to the band's participation in the contest, are flimsy, manufactured contrivances lacking in interest and believability.

For the most part, the music and lyrics (music by Richard Oberacker)—ballads, swing numbers, character songs—are merely serviceable. I did enjoy the beat and melody of "You Deserve It" (a bandstand performance number for Donny, Julia, and the band), yet most of the 1940s big band swing numbers are pale imitations of the real thing. The score's standout song is "Welcome Home," Laura Osnes' big 11 o'clock number. Here, as Osnes belts out an ideal for the occasion lyric with powerful notes and emotional fervor, The Bandstand soars.

The lion's share of the performance chores falls to Corey Cott (Donny Novitski). Cott appropriately resists the temptation to soften the proud and determined, yet troubled and prickly Donny in order to woo the approval of the viewer. Cott walks a thin line well. Donny is the good guy hero here, but he is often not likeable. It would be helpful if the writers could find a way to find the key to making Donny a bit more sympathetic without compromising the complexities of their most dimensional character.

Osnes (Julia) performs well throughout and, as noted, her performance of her big number is superb. However, her effectiveness is hampered by a role which is wan and lacking in dimension. James Nathan Hopkins (saxophone), Brandon J. Ellis (bass), Joey Pero (trumpet), Geoff Packard (trombone), and Joe Carroll (drums) bring a relaxed, natural feel and likeability to their interactions. Even more impressively, it appears that a substantial portion of the band's music is being performed (rather than mimed) by this crew. This adds much to their verisimilitude. The remarkable Beth Leavel (Julia's mother) is as reliable as always, but neither of her lackluster sardonic songs contain the spark needed to allow her to truly shine.

The open unit set by David Korins features a large proscenium at the rear fronted by stage lights which are raised and lowered for various scenes, a stage platform on rollers to each side of the stage (both of which are variously employed about the stage) with stationary loge style boxes above them, and there are lattice work wooden panels on the far sides. Various flats and furnishings are lowered or rolled in for various scenes. It is drab and bleak. Only when the stage is swathed in curtains obliterating the basic set and bright display lights are added in various configurations when the setting segues from Cleveland to New York City well into the second act does the set design become eye pleasing, warm and inviting. It seems is as if the set has been designed to illustrate the lyric expounding a "theory" about "Lake Erie" ("It takes a place this dreary /To give a guy the right amount/ Of drive to surmount / It's time to tell the world we count").

Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has elicited solid, enthusiastic performances, staged his scenes efficiently, and provided some lively choreography which will likely be expanded as The Bandstand is further developed. His all stops out staging of the show's big de facto finale (the following scene is really an epilogue) is extremely effective.

The Bandstand continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7 pm / Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 1:30 pm) through November 8, 2015, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

The Bandstand Music by Richard Oberacker/ Book and Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker/ Directed and Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler

Cast
Donny Novitski………………………………………..Corey Cott
Flora Novitski/Production Assistant............Lauren Mufson
Oscar Novitski/Syd Lemon/James Harper…Daniel Cooney
Talent Booker/Dolores……………………..Jessica Lea Patty
Mr. Jackson……………………………………..Ryan Kasprzak
Andre Baruch/Oliver…………………….Thomas Cannizzaro
Jimmy Campbell……………………..James Nathan Hopkins
Waitress/Entertainment Director………………….Tanya Birl
Davy Zlatic………………………………………Brandon J. Ellis
Nick Radel……………………………………………..Joey Pero
Wayne Wright……………………………………Geoff Packard
Johnny Simpson…………………………………….Joe Carroll
Julia Trojan………………………………………...Laura Osnes
Mrs. Adams………………………………………….Beth Leavel
Jean Ann Ryan………………………………Stacia Fernandez
Roger Cohen…………………………………………….Jeff Pew
Tom…………………………………………………..Max Clayton
Betsy……………………………………………….Andrea Dotto


- Bob Rendell


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