May 3, 2017
Thrilled to be back home, the greatest generation returns to an unfamiliar country. Old jobs are taken, lovers have married and the men are no longer indispensable.
“Bandstand,” the new Broadway musical at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre captures the era through original swing music written by Richard Oberacker. Yes, this is one of those musicals that demands everything of its multi-talented cast—they sing, dance, play musical instruments and sing. Briskly directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, the expertly physical actors activate all the corners of the performance arena.
Action swirls around a hotheaded jazz composer and pianist, Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), who returns to Cleveland from the battlefield only to step into an emotional minefield. Jobs for jazz musicians are scarce and his friends have moved onto raising families and other jobs. Fortunately, there’s a competition being promoted that promises a large cash prize and a stint on an MGM film. Suddenly, Donny has a sense of purpose. He will organize a band of servicemen.
As theater luck would have it, he meets Julia (Laura Osnes) —the widow of one of his buddies—only to learn she sings and writes poetry that suits his musical compositions.
In fact, there are plenty of sweet moments exposing the vulnerability of all the young men who have lost their appetite for risk, yet, want to feed their appetite for making music. A bit of “It’s A Wonderful Life” creeps in when all the locals donate money to help the band get to the finals.
For anyone who lived during the many television “Quiz” scandals of the 1950’s, it will be no surprise to learn that the competition was fixed—but there’s a twist.
Most importantly, dance drives “Bandstand” that also features the slight book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Oberacker. Taking a few notes from the great American musical theater choreographer Agnes deMille, the movement churns the story forward.
Known for his brilliant work on “Hamilton” and “In The Heights” Mr. Blankenbuehler vociferously expresses this era through it’s vernacular dances. Bodies flip unabashedly upside down, while legs kick side to side against hips that swish in counterpoint to the maddeningly quick footwork. Men’s arms pulse with muscles while, without a morsel of modesty, the women fly overhead tethered to the earth by one hand grasping another.
Although the swing steps are familiar from old films and musical revivals, Balnkenbuehler cleverly weaves everyday moves into theatrical exclamations. For instance, instead of choreographing a single line with everyone executing the same sequence, dancers invert steps, and repeat patterns in reverse. All this adds up to a bounty of innovative choreography that never positions itself in the center or one corner of the stage, but instead seeps into every conversation.
Although the story lacked depth, it supported the otherwise genuine talents of a cast that must sleep well after each physically exacting performance.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis