Bandstand: Big Bang Swing
There is no way that this show is going to let you not pay it your full attention. This loud and fun musical, reminiscent of the old MGM ‘lets-put-on-a-show’ musicals that it references to throughout, starts out with an intense crack and never lets up, volume wise. Which is, in a way, it’s fun and it’s flaw. There is a lovely story in here about a man who survives a war, returns home to find that things can’t just return to what it once was, and that he is not the same young man either. His love of big band swing music hasn’t disappeared. His devotion to his best buddy who died by his side in that same war that he survived still sits strong and sure within his sense of duty, and his commitment to his word will end up being his savior from the weight many of the returning soldiers carry on their backs day after day. There is great music, spectacular singing, a healthy lively pulse, and athletic creative dancing, courtesy of director/choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton). The only problem in this show is that the creators barely gives the piece a moment to catch its breath, constantly driving forward without a pause. It throws everything at us with a full force, energetic music along with anguish and post WW2 pain. All served at the same loud driving speed. It’s like they don’t trust us to stay tuned in unless they are always feeding us something powerful.
The first five minutes of Bandstand bombard us with details and drama from World War II and the soldier’s return. It’s visually and emotionally overwhelming, throwing so much at us; almost too much to take in. Only later, when there is a pause, when the handsome and incredibly talented, Corey Cott (Newsies, Gigi) is allowed to be still just for a moment, just him and the piano, are we allowed to engage. Cott, as the leader of the soon-to-be-assembled band, sings a smart and catchy song, titled the same as his character, “Danny Novitski“. We finally are able to connect, settle down into our seats, and take a breath after what was just thrown at us.
He finds salvation in his return to the smoke filled night clubs of 1945 Cleveland, alive and humming with the sound of swing. The band that Nick gathers together in hopes to win a National contest, are a perfect ensemble of ingredients, perfectly played by the impressive on-stage talent of James Nathan Hopkins as Jimmy Campbell, Brandon J. Ellis (Once) as Davy Zlatic, Alex Bender as Nick Radel, Geoff Packard (Matilda) as Wayne Wright, and my favorite of the bunch, Joe Carroll (Cinderella) as drummer, Johnny Simpson. Each one of his mismatched fellow WWII veterans band-mates are magnificent and keep the music thumping and flowing. There is no doubt, but it is in the calmer moments, sometimes too few and far between, that we can really feel attached to these tortured souls. Figuratively, and sometimes literally, this solid band drags along their PTSD before it had a name other than depression or paranoia. Sometimes our demons even push our piano playing leading man forward, beautifully illustrating the heaviness within. These moments are all the power, but more so when they take a breath and a pause. Music, sometimes, is better when it follows a bit of stillness and silence.
The other major talent lies in the home of the beautiful young war widow, Julia Trojan, portrayed with a lively spark by the incredibly gifted Laura Osnes (Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella). This woman can do it all, from singing a glorious church number to sliding right into a big band rocking “Right This Way“. Not to be sidelined by this woman playing her daughter, Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) as mother Mrs. June Adams, has little to do, but some of the best and funniest deliveries in the whole show. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle!” which is so true in the case of Leavel. The character is written with such wit and delivered up to us with such a unique strength that I was captivated, waiting for what was sure to be her “pull-it-together, daughter” moment that was sure to come somewhere in Act II. And I wasn’t wrong, it did come, but the song, “Everything Happens” was a let-down. In my head, I thought we were going to be given a ‘Virginia Clark-ActII-Gigi‘ show stopping number, a performance that would lift us up, and cause us to soar through the skies, but Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker (Broadway debut) who wrote the book and lyrics for Bandstand dropped the ball when it came to Leavel’s moment center-stage. They had gifted her character endlessly with a great persona and wonderful lines, but at the crucial moment, her song barely lifted our chins.
But the swing music in Bandstand is a full meal and the main reason we have come to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Written by Oberacker, the sound of the show is spectacular. A Big Band sound all the way around courtesy of music director: Fred Lassen, Co-orchestrations: Bill Elliott, Greg Antony Rassen; music supervisor/arranger: Rassen; and music coordinator: Howard Joines. While many of the narrative songs fade to the background, the big show pieces fly. “I Got a Theory“, “Love Will Come and Find Me Again“, and the final song, “Welcome Home” work their magic on the crowd, just as beautifully as the set design by David Korins (Hamilton, War Paint), surprising us in Act II by giving so much more than expected. It opens up like a small town boy who finally arrives in the big city. Same could be said of the good work done by lighting designer, Jeff Croiter (Falsettos, Holiday Inn), costume designer Paloma Young (Peter and the Starcatcher), and sound designer Nevin Steinberg (Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton).
Bandstand relentlessly tries hard to give us all that there is to say about the attempt to return to normality after WW2. In some ways, the director needs to have more faith in our attention span. At one point in the show, I thought, if there is a moment of stillness on that stage, we should assume something has gone wrong. That a piece of the set is stuck, or that something has happened to one of the horns. And you know what many say about wind instruments, breathing is what makes the music sing. So slow the beat down, take a deep breath in, and let us savor the talent being given to us.