Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - October 2015
Review by John Kenrick
The photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill Playhouse.
Looking for a really entertaining new musical? There's a darn fine one trying out at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. In the nostalgic and timely The Bandstand, a sensational cast is bringing the post-World War II swing band era to life with awesome jazz riffs and a refreshingly honest story.
The plot involves six veterans fresh home from the war forming a band and entering a nationwide radio contest, hoping to win a stint in an MGM movie. Back in 1945, no one had yet named post traumatic stress disorder--but thousands of returning vets suffered from some degree of it, as do all the members of this band. Some self medicate with booze or pills, but all find some purpose in making music.
While the score by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor tunefully invokes the swing sound of the mid-1940s, the challenges faced by these haunted survivors of war makes immediate sense as our nation faces the human cost of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Director Andy Blankenbuehler has stages this show with a swift pace and a sure hand, and his choreography captures the razzle dazzle of various swing dance styles at their best. David Korin's sets contrast the everyday atmosphere of Cleveland with the glamour and glitz of Manhattan, making for some eye-popping moments in the second act. Paloma Young's costumes are period perfect, and Jeff Croiter's lighting is first rate throughout. David Kreppel does a superb job leading the pit orchestra, coordinating them flawlessly with the band on stage.
Yes, the guys in the band all play their instruments at virtuoso levels while also delivering fine acting performances--no small accomplishment. So kudos to Joe Carrol, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard and Joey Pero, each of whom makes the most of every musical and dramatic opportunity.
Corey Cott, who delighted audiences as Gaston in last season's Broadway revival of Gigi, is pure dynamite as Donny, the pianist who pulls together this scrappy sextet of vets. Laura Osnes, who made magic on Broadway playing the lead in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, is a total knockout as Julia, the widow of Donny's war buddy. Joining the band as a vocalist, her poems (and her love) inspire Donny to compose several songs, one of which just might be the contest winning hit.
My only complaint about this extremely promising project is that one of its most gifted cast members is musically wasted. Tony Award winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) wins laughs with practically every line of dialogue as Julia's loving mother, Mrs. Adams. But her two solos are by far the weakest moments in the score, fulfilling plot functions but painfully short on melody and emotion. Despite Leavel's best efforts, both songs are dead on arrival. If The Bandstand is to have a commercially viable future, thse two numbers should be heavily revised or replaced altogether. If Beth Leavel can't make them work, it is a fair bet that no one can.
Overall, The Bandstand is one heck of a good show, busting with rhythm and packed with talent. Paper Mill's ongoing policy of presenting new musicals has turned up another potential winner.
This production runs through November 8, 2015.