New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, which is ambitiously turning itself into a launch pad for new musicals with Broadway potential (instead of just a house for revivals of the classics), has experienced both hits (i.e. “Newsies”) and misses (i.e. “Ever After”) in recent years.
This season is marked by two such world premieres: a musical version of the film “A Bronx Tale” (to be co-directed by Robert De Niro) and the wholly original 1940s musical “The Bandstand,” which opened on Sunday night.
It’s a pleasure to report that “The Bandstand” is a terrific new musical with an absorbing plot, likable characters, high emotional stakes, a tuneful, big band-style score, and seamless swing dance choreography from director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who just choreographed “Hamilton.”
Set right after World War II in Cleveland, a returning soldier and once-promising musician (Corey Cott) sets out to win a songwriting contest by organizing a band comprised of returning military men and the widow (Laura Osnes) of a pal who died in battle.
The big achievement of “The Bandstand” is to authentically capture the post-war era while also exploring it with a keen, often gritty point of view, highlighting how the battle scarred men (essentially suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder) have difficulty adjusting back to civilian life and how their music provides an outlet for recovery and self-expression.
The explosive 11 o’clock number, where the characters openly address their emotional wounds in the midst of a hot jazz number being broadcast live, is brilliantly devised. Had “The Bandstand” used classic songs from the period instead of an original score (by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor), a moment like that would not have been possible.
Osnes (“Cinderella”), a Broadway favorite who has made a specialty out of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals and “all-American girl” roles, is especially well-suited for “The Bandstand.” Cott, recently of the flop Broadway revival of “Gigi,” combines leading man suave with a restless edge. They are joined by Tony winner Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) as the girl’s pushy mother.
The plotting is occasionally clunky, and it is difficult to adequately explore all of the supporting characters while keep the two leads and their slow romance front and center. But on the whole, “The Bandstand” is lively, enjoyable and captivating. In other words, it definitely has Broadway potential.
“The Bandstand” plays through Nov. 8 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ. papermill.org.