Writers have always dared to make serious issues of mental health sing. Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin looked at the concept of psychoanalysis in their 1941 musical Lady in the Dark. Next to Normal explores the effects of bipolar disorder on a suburban family (and garnered a Pulitzer Prize in doing so). Dear Evan Hansen, currently playing to acclaim at the Music Box Theatre, wrenchingly follows what its like to be lonely in a connected world. The musical form is ideal for this subject matter — when talking will no longer suffice, what better way to explore your feelings than to sing?
Like its counterparts, Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor's new musical Bandstand, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, just as carefully delves into the minds of several fragile individuals, as well as explores the undeniable power that art has to change the world. The protagonists are a group of soldiers who have just returned home from the front lines of World War II. They're different than they were before they got sent overseas — today, we might say they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. But when this motley assortment of men is given an important opportunity, one that involves music, they find themselves opening up in ways that make them feel whole again.
To that end, Bandstand is a much-needed new musical for an era in which budgets for organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts are in crisis. This Paper Mill Playhouse transfer also benefits from first-rate direction and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and two fiery leading performances from Corey Cott and Laura Osnes.
Cott plays Donny Novitski, a young pianist thrust back into civilization after watching his best friend die in the trenches. Aiming to restart his life as best he can, he very quickly realizes a cold, hard truth: There's no place in the world for a veteran with inner demons. Even his hometown of Cleveland has moved on without him.
Donny sees a small glimmer of hope when MGM announces the search for a swing band with an original song, which will pay tribute to the troops in an upcoming film. With that in mind, Donny cobbles together a troupe of fellow vets, each one suffering from similar psychological issues, to blow MGM away (and potentially give themselves peace of mind in the process). But what about a lead singer? Songwriter Donny finds the ideal partner in Julia Trojan (Osnes), the widow of his fallen comrade.
In terms of style, Bandstand is refreshingly old-fashioned, reminiscent of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "Let's Put on a Show" movies, with a dash of Rodgers and Hammerstein for good measure (few 21st-century musicals have adhered to the traditional musical structure as beautifully as this one does). This applies to the technical elements, as well. David Korins' well-worn set doubles as a barroom and band shell, with cast members rolling scenery on and off with the help of Blankenbuehler's inventive, movement-based choreography. Paloma Young's costumes evoke old period photographs and Life Magazine covers, especially when bathed in Jeff Croiter's lovely sepia-toned lighting.
But Oberacker and Taylor, who make their Broadway writing debuts with the shows, do have some contemporary twists up their sleeves when it comes to the central characters. Donny and Julia simply have more strength than they would if this show were a product of the 1950s. Bandstand is clearly a love story between the pair, but their love of music — and their desire to win the contest — is what impacts their decision-making, not traditional romance. When Donny requests that Julia use her maiden name professionally, instead of her married name, she quickly shuts him down.
Osnes delivers that moment with spectacular assurance, something her acting performance could a bit use more of. But when she sings, stand back. She performs her two big numbers, "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" and "Welcome Home," with a blistering intensity that is thrilling to behold. While not all of the songs fit comfortably in Cott's range, his work is as as alive as it gets. It's an exhilirating, star-making turn. In the supporting role of Julia's mother, Tony winner Beth Leavel cracks wise with perfection.
As for the band members (all of whom double as musicians), Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard are so impressively specific in their choices that they never once fade into the background.
Music is not only what exorcises the demons within the characters of Bandstand, it also brings them together. Anyone who thinks that the arts have no impact on society needs to see this show and witness just what it can do for those who have sacrificed so much to protect us all.
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