At a time when the future of federal arts funding is in serious jeopardy, the high-powered new Broadway musical “Bandstand” serves as an urgent testimonial to the healing and restorative power that the arts (in this case, an informal neighborhood jazz band) can have for those who have endured economic or emotional hardships.
The musical premiered last season at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, and since then its script, score and staging have been developed and improved upon.
Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a once-promising singer-pianist who fought overseas in World War II, returns home to Cleveland and quickly finds himself out of work and traumatized psychologically by his memories of combat.
Inspired by a contest calling for a band to write and perform an original song on a national broadcast, Donny brings together four other struggling veterans and a young widow (Laura Osnes) to create their own jazz band.
Although they are backed by a pit orchestra, the actors often play their instruments live onstage, creating both a superb sound design and an unusual degree of realism for a musical.
It would have been easy to simply plug in 1940s pop standards. But instead Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor created a swinging original score that not only captures the period style but also digs deep into the characters. The music is so tightly integrated into the script that “Bandstand” becomes unusually powerful musical theater. Its reinterpretation of the traditional 11 o’clock number is both smart and electrifying.
Andy Blankenbuehler, who rose to prominence as the choreographer of “In the Heights” and then “Hamilton,” does a stunning job as both director and choreographer.
There is some lively nightclub dancing. But for the most part, Blankenbuehler’s choreography consists of fast-paced, freeform movement that heightens the tensions of the storyline without turning into a distraction. In that way, it looks and feels a lot like “Hamilton.”
Cott (“Newsies”) gives a performance of vigorous restlessness mixed with charm that brings to mind Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris.” Osnes, who has become one of Broadway’s leading musical theater stars, proves that she is equally adept with dark and emotionally charged material as with ingenue roles in revivals of classic musicals.