The Streaming Experience: Broadway’s Bandstand
There is no way that this show, even when streaming, is going to let you not pay attention. It has too much going on to let you look away. It’s loud and fun, very reminiscent of the old MGM ‘lets-put-on-a-show’ type of musical that it references throughout, It begins with an intense crack and never lets up, volume-wise. Which is, in a way, its fun and its tiny flaw. There is a lovely love story implanted in this musical, 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 that he once was either. His love of big band swing music hasn’t disappeared, thankfully, and his devotion to his best buddy who died by his side still sits strong and sure within his sense of duty. His commitment to his word ends up being his saving grace from the weight many of the returning soldiers carry on their backs day after day, and we can’t help but engage fully with his pain and suffering. There is great music, spectacular singing, a healthy lively pulse, and an amazing level of athletic and creative dancing to marvel at, courtesy of director/choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton). The only problem in this show, as I first mentioned when I saw it many years ago on Broadway, is that the creators barely give 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 and visually stimulating.
The first five minutes of Bandstand bombard us with details and drama from World War II and the soldier’s return. It’s visual and emotionally strong, and I must say, it is even better or easier to take in with this filmed version. It throws a lot at us; almost too much, but for some reason the close-ups and editing within the film format work in its favor, giving us intimacy and space that somehow got lost on the wide stage. It might be the timing and the world we find ourselves in as we all are a little shell shocked from the isolation and fear of our current day situation. The energy of the filming works its magic a tad better, thanks to film director Lorenzo Thione, and it doesn’t hurt that this is also a fundraiser for The Actors Fund, which fits the piece more than I realized when I first read about it.
Later, during a needed pause in the initial dramatics, the handsome and incredibly talented, Corey Cott (Newsies, Gigi) is allowed to be still, just him and the piano. And it is in that moment that we find ourselves able to really engage with the young man’s pain and circumstance. The magnetic Cott, as the leader of the soon-to-be-assembled band, finds a perfect attunement when he sings a smart and catchy song titled “Danny Novitski“, his character’s name. In a flash, we finally see the vulnerability inside and settle ourselves down into our virtual seats. We needed that vantage point to take a much-needed breath after what was just witnessed. You know what many say about wind instruments, breathing is what makes the music sing. So slowing the beat down and taking a deep breath will let us savor the talent being given to us.
Danny finds the salvation he so desperately needs in the smoke-filled night clubs of 1945 Cleveland. His return brings back the feeling of being truly alive and humming with the sound of swing. The band that Nick gathers together in hopes to win a National song-writing contest are a perfect ensemble of hand-picked ingredients, played impressively by the 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 boy Johnny Simpson. Each one of these mismatched fellow WWII vet band-mates transports us with their magnificence and keeps the music thumping and flowing unapologetically. There is no doubt of their talent, 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, these band members drag along their PTSD souls for us all to see, clinging to their bodies in desperation and need. It’s a powerful image, these demons, hanging onto their counterparts, and even pushing our piano-playing leading man forward. It’s dynamic, and smart, beautifully illustrating the heaviness that lives, most tragically, within.
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 (Broadway’s The Prom) 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 stopper that would lift us up and 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 did more than the minimum required. An opportunity wasted.
But the swing music in Bandstand is the real deal and the main reason to tune in and stream. Written by Oberacker, the overall sound of the show is spectacular. Big Band all the way around is all one can say about it, thanks to 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 showpieces fly. “I Got a Theory“, “Love Will Come and Find Me Again“, and the final song, “Welcome Home” work their magic, 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 smalltown boy who finally arrives in the big city. The same could be said of the electric 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 tries hard to give us all that there is to say about the attempt to return to normality after WW2. It feels like a good time for this feel-good musical to come our way. It sings and dances into our soul, almost better than when I saw it in person. The interwoven dance movements that lead us from one scene to the next work amazingly well, especially when filmed. The talented dance crew and Blankenbuehler, as director and choreographer, discover an essence in the intervals that deliver a feeling that is artistic and authentic. The cinematic close-ups pull us into the drama and center our hearts on what the stage director really wants us to pay attention to. And it works most wonderfully, and surprisingly on film. So grab hold of the chance, and take it all in. The clock is ticking on this streaming pleasure. You only have until 11:59pm ET, April 17th to stream it into your lives, so click here, and dive in, while you still are able. And please find the time to donate to The Actors Fund, it’s really what this musical and this moment are all about.