This Broadway season tackles some heavy subjects, from teen suicide (Dear Evan Hansen) to September 11 (Come From Away). And despite a somewhat bubbly sounding title, Bandstand is no exception. On the menu for this musical entry: PTSD.
The show at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre opens on Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) losing his best friend while fighting in the South Pacific during World War II and returning home to Cleveland. As he avoids fulfilling his promise to his fallen friend — to check in on his wife, Julia (Laura Osnes) — Donny attempts to find a job in music so things can be “Just Like It Was Before,” as the first song promises. Soon, he learns of a music contest awarding one Ohio band the chance to compete in New York City in a nationwide television special welcoming home the troops, and he begins to piece together a band of fellow veterans.
Donny’s references to his insomnia and his fierce efforts to focus on anything other than what he experienced are clear enough, but the theme really begins to drive forward as we meet the band members. Each man handles his difficult memories in a different way; bass player Davy (Brandon J. Ellis), for example, may seem like an alcoholic, Shakespeare-spouting, 1945 version of Zach Galifianakis, but when he paraphrases the Bard and says, “‘I’ll tickle your catastrophe’ — I liberated Dachau,” the reality of his life hits home. Later, when Julia asks him about his drinking, Davy notes, “Even though there isn’t enough whisky in the world to wash away what I saw in those camps, I owe it to myself to try.”
In another moving moment, each of the band members appears on stage with dancers dressed in military garb clinging to them as shadows.
Eventually, Donny gets the nerve to visit his friend’s widow and share stories of his time with Michael, and Julia is convinced to perform with what eventually becomes The Donny Nova Band featuring Julia Trojan.
Both Cott (Gigi) and Osnes (Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella) are worthy Broadway leads, with big voices and the energy and commitment to steer the show, but while they sounded great together, they lacked the spark that might’ve had me cheering for them to connect romantically. Tony winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone), who plays Julia’s mother, and the aforementioned Ellis (Once) are among the other standouts in the cast.
Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony last year for choreographing that little show that could, Hamilton, pulls double-duty as both choreographer and director here and manages with aplomb. His set is simple, which allows the show’s immense talent — from its stars to its band members performing live on stage to its dancers — to shine.
The music itself works, but for a show called “Bandstand,” one might expect to keep humming a tune or two hours after leaving the theater. That doesn’t happen here. Act one’s big showstopper, “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,” is as grand as you want it to be — and Osnes completely crushes it — but it also sounds like any other tune from the big band era. The big finale track, “Welcome Home,” which is about how each band member handles his PTSD, is intentionally awkward and not exactly the kind of track you’ll want to sing in the shower.
Bandstand offers plenty to entertain in the moment, but despite its weighty theme, little lingers. B