Editor’s Notes: The following is a review of the current Paper Mill Playhouse production, the original musical The Bandstand. Paper Mill Playhouse is the State Theatre of New Jersey and has a tradition of presenting top-quality productions of revivals as well as new plays and musicals. The Bandstand will run through November 8.
New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse starts its 2015-2016 season with The Bandstand, an original musical set in 1945 that focuses on a group of returning vets who attempt to reacclimate to civilian life as musicians. But they find that many doors are closed to them and those who do give them a break are doing so for self-serving reasons. Because the band these guys form is composed of armed forces veterans, the patriotic angle is a slant producers and managers can exploit.
The opening number sets the theme. Returning GIs and civilians sing “Just Like It Was Before,” a hopeful anthem to getting back to lives interrupted by war. The human engine driving the formation of a new band of vets is Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), who manages in quick order to assemble the musicians, including band singer and war widow Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). Each war vet musician Donny recruits recommends another in the song “I Know a Guy,” leading to the rapid expansion of the combo. This is a great example of how a song’s lyrics can move the plot forward and introduce additional characters without bogging down the pace. The assembled band includes Johnny (Joe Carroll), Davy (Brandon J. Ellis), Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins), Wayne (Geoff Packard), and Nick (Joey Pero).
Cott is a multi-talented actor who fits the role of Donny well. Aggressive, hard working, and often angry, Donny forges ahead, determined to claim for himself and for his band not simply a place in civilian life, but one matching the talent he’s assembled. Call it the Hollywood dream with a national radio broadcast standing in for movie stardom. Cott and Ms. Osnes make an attractive pair, though Donny’s friendship with Julia’s deceased husband complicates their relationship.
Ms. Osnes, who played the title character in Cinderella on Broadway, is a charming leading lady who has a chance to exercise her acting chops as well as her considerable musical talent. The role of Julia provides her with a degree of dramatic heft not all that common in musical theatre.
Theatre veteran Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) plays Julia’s mother, a no-nonsense woman who encourages her daughter to move ahead with her life and embrace her talent. Ms. Leavel has two numbers in which she presents cautionary advice and serves as a sturdy shoulder for a fragile Julia. Ms. Leavel’s earthy performance adds some lighter moments, but never resorts to cliche or caricature.
Though the show follows a traditional musical theater plot — putting on a show and boy meets girl — it’s the underlying theme that distinguishes the show as something more. Though set 70 years ago, the difficulties of World War II veterans trying to get their lives together after living through the brutality of war resonates strongly today.
Book and lyric writers Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker have given the show a bittersweet quality with the guys — each damaged one way or another by their war experience — resentful that they are not embraced more by a populace they defended with their lives. This is not simply sour grapes; the men have real talent (the actors play their own instruments on stage, embellished by the pit orchestra).
Surprisingly, for a show set at such a distinctive moment in America, we never get the full flavor of pop culture at the time. This was the Big Band Era, but the musical arrangements are more typical Broadway than Big Band. Richard Oberacker’s music tries to capture the excitement of Dorsey, Miller, and Goodman, but never achieves the sound or the excitement of the big band arrangements.
The dance craze of the time was the jitterbug, an exciting fast dance that should have been worked into at least one big production number. Director/Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler provides hints of the dance early on, but misses the opportunity to create a rousing show stopper by relying instead on more generic dance styles.
If there’s one number that captures the essence of the show, it is “Welcome Home,” a rousing anthem that concludes the production. The song builds to an exciting climax as the veterans plead for inclusion and appreciation. The audience at the opening night performance gave this number an extended, loud ovation.
The Bandstand will be performed at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse eight times a week through November 8. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 P.M., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 P.M., and Sunday at 7 P.M. Matinees are Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 1:30 P.M.