The final musical of the 2016-2017 Broadway season, Bandstand opened tonight at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with a swinging look back at 1946. It’s about the post-WWII era and the conflicted welcome rolled out for returning veterans (think William Wyler’s The Best Years of Their Lives) and the music that swept across the U.S. during that period. Bandstand, staged with breathtaking originality by director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton), swings in a different way, as well: between the soft-focus lens of nostalgia and the jarring clarity that a contemporary view demands.
Our hero is Donny Novitski (the crazy talented Corey Cott, late of Gigi and Newsies), a shell-shocked veteran who returns home to Cleveland expecting to pick up his career as a jazz pianist, only to be cold-shouldered by the club-owners who used to keep him gigging. Hearing of a song competition that will culminate in a nationwide radio broadcast and appearance in a Hollywood film, Donny assembles a band of brothers, veterans Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins) on saxophone; Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis) on bass; Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll) on drums; Nick Radel (Alex Bender) on trumpet; and Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) on trombone. All the actors are formidable instrumentalists (augmented by a pit orchestra), and each of the characters they play is dealing with PTSD in one way (alcohol) or another (flashbacks, brain injury).
And to sing with the guys, Donny pursues Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes, Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella), the lovely, forlorn widow of his best buddy, who died in combat. Julia is at first a reluctant recruit, having resigned herself to living at home with Mom (Beth Leavel) while hawking cosmetics at a department store and singing in the church choir.
Donny is a force of nature, banging out song after song, singing with power and conviction while patiently weaving the band together from contrasting strands. They have to compete locally before making the trip to New York for the finals; a trip they have to pay for themselves despite the oft-repeated sponsorship of Bayer Aspirin. (Bayer takes it on the chin throughout the show as manipulative, exploitative and deceptive – a biting diss on a real brand unlikely to be challenged, given Bayer’s history as a unit of I.G. Farben, the German chemical conglomerate that profited as Hitler’s accomplice in the Holocaust.) Donny also carries a secret about his buddy that he will have to reveal if his inevitable romance with Julia is to proceed.
The show begins with a stylized depiction of the battlefield scene in which the friend died, and other scenes from the war are interspersed through the show. It is to Blankenbuehler’s credit that the dazzling through-line of movement makes Bandstand as much about dance as it is about music. This show situates him firmly in the thin-air pantheon of director-choreographers that includes Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune and Susan Stroman (and before them, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd). The movement in Bandstand is seamless and eye-popping, managing an astonishing feat: The stage is filled with action yet our focus never drifts from the story. Watch as even the men moving a piano into place do so as if they were in an Egyptian fresco.
Set designer David Korins (also represented this season with Dear Evan Hansen) allows the scenes to move fluidly from jazz club to home to recording studio, aided by Jeff Croiter’s ever-shifting light palette. And Paloma Young’s costumes perfectly capture an era of sensuous informality.
Developed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Bandstand marks the Broadway debut of writer-composer Richard Oberacker and writer Robert Taylor, who are clearly well versed in the musical idioms of the period and whose more-than-serviceable songs range from torchy ballads (Julia’s “Love Will Come And Find Me Again”) to roof-raising anthems (“A Band In New York City”).
So I have to wonder, given all the feverish, experienced talent involved, how this show about American war veterans and American music, set in Cleveland, was cast without a single non-caucasian among the principals. The choice is incomprehensible to me; nearly the entire company is white. Cleveland was a jazz center before rock ‘n’ roll made it famous, and the two are as interlinked as the races that gave birth to them. Surely Donny, as a musician, would have encountered a colleague of color across the sea (even though General Patton didn’t begin integrating the troops until the final months of the war). Were there no African-American veterans in Cleveland, 1946, playing the jazz clubs where Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson performed? Those questions kept coming back to me through two viewings of the show. At first I felt miserable for any African-American in the audience. But that’s not the point, and in the end, I felt miserable for myself.
Speaking of jazz, and to end this on the upbeat: You have two weeks to catch Mr. Scat-n-Patter himself, John Pizzarelli, at New York’s Café Carlyle. The incomparable singer and guitarist, backed by Konrad Paszkudzki on piano and Mike Karn on bass, are playing an all Johnny Mercer set. That means in addition to lyrics ranging from “Skylark” to “Something’s Gotta Give” to his quartet of Oscar winners (“On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe,” “In The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River”), you will hear a fine sampling of the nearly 200 composers Mercer worked with, from Hoagy Carmichael (“Dream”) to Duke Ellington (“Satin Doll”) and, yes, Barry Manilow (“When October Goes”). You also get to hear some very funny anecdotes, along with Pizzarelli’s astonishing scatting while playing, on “Jeepers Creepers.” The set’s highlight, “Too Marvelous For Words,” – one of the great list-songs ever, to music by Richard A. Whiting – says it all.