Friday, 5 May 2017

BANDSTAND with Laura Osnes and Corey Cott Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler

     I enjoyed BANDSTAND. The cast is enormously talented--some sing, dance, act AND play instruments expertly. The music is catchy and tuneful, if forgettable but how many current shows have memorable scores? The band, onstage and in the pit is excellent. It's a joy to hear a pit band that isn't synthesizer heavy--that doesn't sound like a hurdy-gurdy. The dancing (choreography Andy Blankenbuehler), is fabulous. So why were there so many empty seats in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last night? Part of my brain was asking why this show is not going to make it.
     Is it that the show is a period piece set at the end of World War II? Is it that the plot hinges on a talent contest at a time when we are inundated with musical talent contests on television? Is it that in an era of Broadway multiculturalism the cast of characters is so white (historically appropriate, but odd), and straight? It's odd that there are references to the Astor Hotel and bar in the show when the Astor bar was a favorite gay meeting place during World War II.
     Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a former club pianist, has come home from the war psychically damaged but determined to restart his musical career. When he hears of a radio contest for the best swing band and song, he decides to build a band out of army veterans, all of whom have been in some way psychologically maimed by the war. Along the way he meets Julia (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best army buddy and who just happens to be a terrific singer. You can tell what's going to happen, right? The fact that the script ((book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker), is so predictable is the show's principal problem. I kept trying to think of ways to make the book more interesting. Perhaps the show could have fleshed out the back stories of the other band members. Perhaps the writers could have updated the timeliness of the issue of  the problems veterans still face by creating a show about a contemporary vet with the wacky idea of bringing back swing music and dancing. For all its virtues, BANDSTAND is saddled with a book that  resembles a 1940s B musical movie.
     Corey Cott sings well. He doesn't seem to be able to dance, which is a problem in this dance show, and I may be wrong but I am quite sure he was faking the piano playing while the other performers were really playing their instruments. His performance harks back to the old-fashioned musicals where the leading baritone was never expected to dance. I wonder if the show would have been stronger if the producers had cast someone who was less "cute aging juvenile" and more offbeat--and could dance! Laura Osnes sings beautifully, but also may be too conventionally "pretty ingenue" for 2017. They seem awfully WASP for the ethnic characters they are supposed to be playing, particularly when Julia has a Jewish mother!
     Most of the show is played in front of a drab barroom set (I thought at first they had recycled the pub set from ONCE, which played in this theatre a few years ago). All those brown tones are pretty dull for a musical. In the middle of the second act, when the gang heads for New York, the show takes a totally different, more spectacular look as if somewhere late in the creative process the producers said, "We need more glitz." It's an abrupt change of style. The war flashbacks are pretty cheesy.
     OK, much of this review is second-guessing a lot of talented Broadway minds. I still enjoyed BANDSTAND. I'm sure part of my enjoyment is based on the fact that my greatest musical love is pre-rock American popular music--what is referred to as the American Songbook. Composer Richard Oberacker creates a good pastiche of this kind of music. Here's a show where the orchestrators (Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen), deserve star billing. It's the way this old codger thinks a pit band should sound. The playout is almost worth the price of admission.
     One final note: the boomy sound resembles the public address system in Grand Central Station. Really poor, artificial sounding sound design.  

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