A World War II veteran and his best friend’s widow are at the patriotic heart of “Bandstand,” a new musical directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer of “Hamilton.”
“Bandstand” had its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse last fall and has just opened at the Jacobs Theatre. I feel as if advertisements for the show ought ought to carry a warning: This musical is not about “American Bandstand,” since that’s what the title seems to evoke for many people.
It is about some material -- the trauma of returning from war -- that doesn't normally get the musical treatment, and that’s the show’s biggest selling point.
We meet Donny Novitski (Corey Cott, last seen in “Gigi”) in the opening sequence, a scene that roughly establishes the death of his friend and fellow solider, Michael “Rubber” Trojan -- uh-huh, the script is punctuated with condom references -- during combat on the Solomon Islands.
An aspiring singer and songwriter before the war, Donny finds it tough to reclaim his old life once he’s back in the States. But his imagination is sparked when he learns about a nationwide NBC radio contest to find America’s next big swing band. The winners will travel to New York City and have their song featured in an MGM movie.
In need of fellow musicians for his contest aspirations, Donny turns to a small cadre of fellow GIs, eventually assembling a wise-cracking, all-veteran band. Julia (Laura Osnes), Michael’s widow, agrees to step in for her late husband, who had wanted to perform with Donny after the war (she also refuses to change her last name, for good reason).
Today, we’d refer to the prevailing subject matter of “Bandstand” as PTSD, and it’s an issue treated compassionately here: In a goose-bump inducing finale, Julia will sing “Welcome Home,” pinpointing the specific wounds each of her bandmates brought home from their tours.
Cott, who segued from college to Broadway when he took over the lead in “Newsies” a few years ago, learned to play piano for this role. His character is both persuasive, in getting other soldiers to join him, and patient -- there isn’t an obvious path to the romance with Julia that we imagine might be coming.
Osnes, who starred in “Cinderella,” brings considerable stage presence to her role as young Gold Star widow Julia, who will become the band's lead singer and writer. Two powerful solos -- the other is “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,” which the band uses to audition for NBC -- showcase her crystalline voice.
Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) is Julia’s mother, who has some great comic moments merely serving up deviled eggs to Don; she’s also on hand to reinforce to Julia another of the show’s themes: Sometimes, “s-it happens,” as she puts it. I wish Blankenbuehler had left a beat for the audience to applaud after her one solo, in the second act.
Of the six band members, Joe Carroll and Brandon J. Ellis excel, Carroll as a drummer with memory loss and a painkiller addiction, and Ellis as the unapologetic bass player who uses alcohol to cope with his memories of the Dachau liberation. He’s funny as all get-out.
Blankenbuehler, who also choreographed “Bandstand,” creates an environment where there’s always something going on. Mostly, the staging works -- but was it necessary to have ghosts of lost GIs pushing Cott around when he’s at the keys? It evokes “Follies,” and is the third show this month putting the undead to work, after “Anastasia” and “Charlie…”
The actors all play their own instruments. Original music, by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, is inspired by the energetic Big Band rhythms of the era, with a side helping of jazz. The trajectory of Taylor’s book is largely standard, and occasionally witty by virtue of self-awareness at how corny the jokes are.
“Bandstand” celebrates Americana with sincerity and deserves props for exploring serious subject matter without the distraction of a political message. Cott and Osnes do their best to sell it.
“Bandstand,” an open-ended run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St. Tickets: $59-$159. Call 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn