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Theatre in Review: Bandstand (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

Corey Cott, Laura Osnes, and company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Swing music is usually represented in popular culture as an eruption of high spirits. The dominant form of the 1930s and '40s, it was, arguably, the first pop music aimed directly at a teenage demographic; after all, Grandma couldn't do the jitterbug without breaking something. In hundreds of films, and at least a few Broadway musicals, it is seen as an athletic expression of sexual energy by those who have no other outlet -- and who have the stamina to go Lindy hopping far into the night. But there's a darkness in the music, as well, an undertow of aggression and frustration that, I think, isn't always recognized, given our natural proclivity for viewing the past through rose-colored glasses. (This was, after all, the music that provided the soundtrack for a country grappling with depression and a world war.) This is clearly understood by the people behind Bandstand, a musical powered by a powerful cocktail of pain and sheer nervous energy. Its characters are always ready to hit the dance floor -- less out of exuberance than because they have so much to forget.

This is certainly true of Donny Novitski, Bandstand's central figure. Just out of the Army -- it is August 1945 -- he is a veteran of the battle for the Solomon Islands, where so many -- including his best friend, Michael -- were killed by friendly fire. Donny is a talented jazz pianist but, back home in Cleveland, he can't find a job; he also promised to look up Michael's wife, Julia, and keep an eye on her, a task he keeps postponing for fear of having to explain the details of Michael's death. Donny's many troubles are unfurled against the backdrop of the number "Just Like It Was Before," a soothing assertion that the war was little more than an historical blip. Already, we are introduced to what will be the evening's main source of tension, the disconnect between an official declaration of Pax Americana and the displacement experienced by returning servicemen who don't know what to do with their memories of terrible, life-shattering events.

When an NBC radio show, sponsored by Bayer Aspirin, announces a competition for "the next great swing band" to present a musical tribute to the boys in uniform, Donny sees his chance. (First prize is an appearance in an MGM musical film.) He assembles an all-veteran band, partly to help out guys like himself and partly because he thinks it's sure to win over the judges. The personnel include Davy, who has been on a bender since the liberation of Dachau; Johnny, addled by painkillers and afflicted with short-term memory loss, thanks to a traumatic jeep accident; Jimmy, who wants only to get through law school; caustic, distrustful Nick, who is mortally sick of being a music teacher; and Wayne, an advanced case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. By now, Donny is also spending time with Julia, and he enlists her as lead singer.

Bandstand follows them through the competition's statewide finals and on to New York, as Donny struggles to hold this bunch of basket cases together while fighting off his feelings for Julia, who blossoms on stage and also shows promise as a lyricist. Meanwhile, travel money must be raised and songs have to be written if that film contract is to be won. Everyone pushes to the limit, even as it becomes clear that the contest is a cynical, manipulative enterprise designed to present a reassuring image of untroubled vets riding high on the home front.

Bandstand, which is never maudlin, doesn't dwell on its characters' psychological wounds. Instead, Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker's book pushes them toward a moment of truth when everyone must decide whether to go along to get along, delivering a contractually approved moment of bland patriotism, or to blast the truth, on a national broadcast, about the demons that keep them up at night. Even as they form a unit, plenty of scar tissue is ripped open. Wayne, who is driving his family mad with his rituals, is challenged by any change in the schedule. Nick keeps threatening to quit and go off with another, more promising group. Pressed to change her last (and married) name to something more attractive on a marquee, Julia pushes back ferociously, taking it as a denial of her life with Michael. And Donny is constantly haunted by the memories that, if spoken, he knows will drive Julia away.

The score -- music by Oberacker, lyrics by him and Taylor -- blends performance numbers with mordant character songs. "Donny Novitski" lays out Donny's derailed dreams and determination to seize his destiny. ("They say that cream rises/But what if nobody tasted/If that cream rises/Then spoils, it's gonna be wasted.") "You Deserve It," Donny's first pass at a contest song, hurls bolts of electricity around the stage. ("Pick up the tempo/Jazz up the beat/Kick up the band/Ticker tape in the street.") "Love Will Come and Find Me Again," a pretty little number with sweet lyrics, is transformed by Donny and Julia into a gutsy ballad warning against living in the past. In "Right This Way," Donny rallies Julia and the band at a low moment, insisting, against all odds, that they are New York-bound, if only because no other outcome can justify the trouble they've seen; it's one of the most electrifying first-act closers of the season.

All of these songs, and many more, unfold in an onstage world jittery with energy, maddened by an irresistible swing beat, thanks to the tightly coiled staging of director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. At the sound of a downbeat, couples on the street jump into a Lindy hop. Guys slide in on their knees, dragging along chairs; time and again, the stage erupts into finger-snapping, knee-knocking frenzy. There's a daring shift of point of view in "You Deserve It" -- we see the crowd dancing with abandon, and suddenly we're inside the heads of the band members as they realize, for the first time, the power of their music. Later, Donny, composing, sits at a piano that is being pushed across the stage by his dead fellow soldiers; it's a striking image of the memories he can neither surrender nor accept.

Corey Cott drives the action as Donny, offering galvanic vocals as he pushes the band to New York by sheer force of will; he also makes something supremely touching out of the unavoidable moment of truth, when he must face the failure to act that caused the deaths of everyone he cared about. Laura Osnes finds a surprising (and welcome) amount of steel in Julia, who dearly misses her late husband but is sick of playing the role of Gold Star widow. She also tears up the theatre with "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home," the song of soldiers that NBC doesn't want its listeners to hear. Beth Leavel makes the most of her wisecracks as Julia's scattered mother, and she does beautifully by "Everything Happens," a warning to Julia about living in the past. As the band members, Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard inhabit their characters nicely, and the music they make is sweet, hot, and irresistible.

David Korins' set -- a purposely dowdy unit set for the Cleveland scenes (it can be a bar, social club, or working-class apartment) and a series of sleek art deco blades for New York -- isn't as seductive as his work on War Paint, but it certainly gets the job done, and it is lit with tremendous panache by Jeff Croiter, who creates a variety of looks with strongly articulated beam (and pattern) effects. Paloma Young's costumes are true to the mid-'40s time frame (a period still suffering from wartime shortages); more to the point, she designs clothes that move beautifully with the dancers. Nevin Steinberg's sound design could have highlighted the voices a bit more, given the supercharged orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, but his work is, overall, solid.

In its final scenes, Bandstand settles for a finale that is probably a little too Hollywood in its account of aftermath of the contest. But, even in its more formulaic moments, the show continues to surprise. And its central point remains steadfast: These men risked everything for their country -- attention must be paid. -- David Barbour

(27 April 2017)

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