By Ruth Ross
Beneath its spirited, driving musical rhythms—performed by a group of energetic jitterbugging dancers and talented musicians—The Bandstand, the original musical opening the Paper Mill Playhouse's 2015-2016 season, explores an important theme: the healing power of music, especially on the bruised and battered souls of military men returning from war (and, in this case, a young widow). Given that we have yet to fully end the longest war in U.S. history, that truth is as relevant today as it was in 1945, when The Bandstand takes place.
And just as Elvis Presley stood American music on its head in the fifties (as did rap in the eighties), so swing provided the beat to which returning soldiers and sailors tried to get their lives in order and move on, despite their elders' hopes that the world would be "Just Like It Was Before," as expressed in the rousing opening number to this delightful show.
Returning to Cleveland from the Pacific war theater haunted by his horrific experiences and the loss of his best friend Michael, musician Donny Novitski forswears playing his accordion at Polish parties and opts for a more precarious career choice: composing original swing music. He puts together a mismatched band of veterans from all branches of the military—and all as “damaged” as he—to compete for a prize offered by a national radio station for an original song honoring the veterans that will guarantee instant stardom for the winners. When he enlists his friend's widow to join the band as a vocalist/lyricist, his life becomes more complicated than it already is. The band races toward a "live on air" finale that is surprising and emotionally satisfying.
One of the most endearing aspects of Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor's play is that the music, echoing the popular 1940s sounds of Benny Goodman among others, is actually performed by the six band members, enhanced by the Paper Mill Playhouse orchestra conducted by David Kreppel. As the brashly charming Donny, Corey Cott (right, with Laura Osnes) exudes talent and stage presence in spades. He is alternately blunt, tender and tormented as he portrays a young man suffering from what we now call PTSD. He radiates confidence, although he is quick to admit that he's really acting. His cocky critiques of Frank Sinatra are either bravado or spot on, but it really doesn't matter which. Laura Osnes shines as the widow Julia Trojan, sad yet cognizant that her life must go on. Her beautiful voice is well suited to her poignant trio of solos, "Love Will Come and Find Me Again," "What's the Harm in That?" and "Welcome Home" wherein she effectively conveys the ravages of war on the women who remained at home. Best of all, the chemistry between Cott and Osnes is palpable; it's easy to believe they are romantically attracted to each other.
Band members Joe Carroll (drums), Brandon J. Ellis (bass), James Nathan Hopkins (saxophone), Geoff Packard (trombone) and Joe Pero (trumpet) really rock the rafters of the playhouse auditorium. Better yet, they present their characters as individuals—the law student, the alcoholic, the prissy family man, the frustrated music teacher—without turning them into caricatures. They don't have much time to fully round out their personas, but they do the best with what they have. As Julia's mother, Beth Leavel (above, with Osnes) encourages her daughter to move on, even as her marriage is disintegrating.
Tony-winner Andy Blankenbuehler directs with great energy so that the excitement never flags, even in the more quiet moments of the play. His lively choreography, performed by an ensemble of young dancers will please aficionados of the jitterbug (also called the Lindy).
All of this is performed on a versatile set designed by David Korins; the proscenium arch at the back of the stage frames the entertainers as they perform a show within a show, and scene changes are effected by props that smoothly move on and off. Jeff Crotter's lighting and Nevin Steinberg's sound enhance the atmosphere, conveying the passage of time and various hours of the day. Rounding out the production team is Paloma Young, who has designed costumes that not only suggest the era but are appropriate to the characters' social class and age. And J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova's hair, wigs and makeup are the cherry on the sundae.
Given the high costs and fickleness of the public, producing an original musical can be a risky undertaking today. That's why so many new plays are based on novels, movies or musical careers. Kudos to the Paper Mill Playhouse for bringing something truly innovative to the theater-going public. The Bandstand is truly a treat for the entire family, especially those used to reality shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice," for who doesn't love to see an underdog come out on top. In the case of The Bandstand, however, the outcome isn't as important (and impressive) as the journey to get there. The Bandstand is fun, inspiring, touching and will make you smile long after you've left the theater.
The Bandstand will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through November 8. There will be a Q & A with the cast following the November 7 matinee. Audio-described performances are offered on Sunday, November 1, and Saturday, November 7, at 1:30 PM; there will be a sign-interpreted and open-captioned performance on Saturday, November 8 at 7 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.
(Photos by Jerry Dalia)