Paper Mill Playhouse’s season opener is the brand new musical “The Bandstand,” with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, helmed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, famed for his work on the award-winning “Hamilton.” Add in Corey Cott as handsome veteran Donny Novitski and Broadway stars like Laura Osnes and Beth Leavel, and you’ve got the beginning ingredients of a truly stellar evening. Osnes and Leavel play a mother and daughter, who have an immense amount of love and the wisdom of Job between them, and it’s Donny’s lucky day when their stars all cross, but let’s take a tiny step back.
Donny has just returned, physically whole, from World War II. We’re in Cleveland, Ohio, during hot August 1945. Donny’s parents Flora and Oscar, Lauren Mufson and Daniel Cooney respectively, are thrilled to see him back. War, however, has turned their son from a boy to a man, and he’s got his own ideas about his life’s direction. When he hears about a radio contest for swing bands, his brainstorm is to make a band of returning vets to play the song that he’ll write. They’ll win acclaim and a movie deal, and they just need to qualify by winning a contest—and now, to put a band together.
Donny hits the streets and rounds up the scholarly Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins) on sax and doubling on clarinet, the Hemingway-esque Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis) on bass, sardonic Nick Radel (Joey Pero) on trumpet, straight arrow Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) on trombone, and Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll) on drums. Each of these vets, like Donny, is physically whole, but carries the memory of something that drives them to excel, even while it robs them of sleep. They each sign on and the Navy, Army, and Marines join forces to move toward the goal. Donny visits his buddy Michael’s widow, Julia (Osnes), as he promised he would. Julia’s mother Mrs. Adams (Beth Leavel) is happy to see there’s someone who’s encouraging Julia to go back to the world where young people live. Donny is pleased to learn that the call that began as obligation leads to there being a “girl singer,” who can kick butt as much as his musicians can, and the show really starts to take off.
The show has several twists and turns, as it moves toward the big contest in New York City, and there are many beautiful moments. There’s the plot itself where Julia and Mrs. Adams interact to poignant effect. Leavel’s Adams is direct with her daughter and her characterization is as brilliant as her musical sense. Osnes’ Julia has the perfect combination of confusion at the whirlwind of change in her life, and she and Donny both question whether Michael brought his buddy and his widow together, or if either is being unfaithful to his memory, when their thoughts turn toward one another.
We learn about each musician in subtle ways. There’s a ballet of sorts, where we, as the audience, see the psychic burden borne by each of the men, the loss and the sense of survivor guilt. When Donny sets Julia’s lyrics to music, the song “Welcome Home” is a paean to the suffering of all who fight, who send loved ones to fight, and who return to fight a different war with a home that will never know what they had to face. The thread of longing and love and healing that runs through this song had me thinking of every war ever fought, but thinking particularly of World War II, Viet Nam, and the more recent wars, whose veterans would find just as much meaning in those words as those who returned in 1945.
The one experience the show left me hungry for was more performance by the musicians. Like the recent revival of “Company” a few years ago, you’ve got true musicians on stage–Hopkins in real life is an alum of Berklee College of Music, Carroll has been playing drums since he was two, and Pero makes his living as a trumpeter. In Act One, there’s a bit where they’re sort of “trading twos”—taking turns soloing. When it was time for their big contest appearance in Act Two, I was waiting for the moment where the band plays, then each virtuoso gets some time in the spotlight, and then comes the big finish. Sadly, the solos never came. I know that band could wail and I was especially looking forward to that.
Here’s why you need to see “The Bandstand”—Donny returns home to take the bull by the horns, then to take Cleveland by storm. Will the Donny Nova band make it to the New York City finals? Will they win the contract and the film appearance? Will Donny and Julia ever get together? You’ll need tickets to find out and this is a show you’ll never forget. Bring a hankie–you’ll be dabbing like I was.
“The Bandstand” ends its run on November 8 and tickets are selling fast! Treat yourself to a weekday blast from the past that will take you back to the future. The pre-curtain music is a feast in itself and the Donny Nova Band will have your feet tapping throughout. Give the gift of music, give the gift of live theater, and visit www.papermill.org
for more details. The season’s just begun.