The Bandstand: The Most Compelling Musical You Shouldn’t See…Yet

bandstandAlthough Gabbing Geek tends to cover more traditional geek fare we’re also dedicated to geeky subjects of all kinds.  My geekiest obsession that falls outside the expected movie, comic book, and science fiction universes is theater.  I’ve been a passionate fan of musical theater and a few plays for decades and my wife and I have been known to schedule almost all of our vacations around trips to New York City or London to see shows.  Whether you too are a theater fan or just curious about that universe, I’ll be bringing my theater reviews here to Gabbing Geek just as often as I can see the shows.

Next up is the intriguing story of a musical where everything, and yet nothing, works.  Come read more about The Bandstand, currently playing in New Jersey but transferring to Broadway next year.  And it’s an appropriate show to discuss today on our Veteran’s Day here in the United States as the show deals with an important topic for veterans.

It’s rare that my wife and I see off-Broadway shows that aren’t already a big deal just because there’s always more Broadway shows we want to see than we have slots available to see them.  But during our latest trip to the city we ventured not just off-Broadway but off-New York, all the way to Millburn, New Jersey to see The Bandstand at the Paper Mill Playhouse.  The show was of interest, but really my wife had always wanted to see the theater–it has an amazing reputation for hosting shows that transfer to Broadway.    And since they had a rare Thursday matinee which didn’t take away from a potential show in the city, a quick train ride to New Jersey awaited our theater day.

The theater did not disappoint our expectations–it’s an amazing facility with world class production values.  The show…well the show is a bit of a conundrum.  I’ve never said this about a musical before but this is a show where everything works–casting, directing, choreography, performance, and the central premise–except for the songs and the script.  So it works…but it doesn’t.

The central premise is fantastic.  The Bandstand is about a young man who returns from World War II haunted by what he saw and eager to re-enter mainstream life.  Before the war he was a rising musical prodigy, but now he’s trying to come back into a musical universe that has passed him by and more eager for a fresher face.  He’s also suffering from some form of PTSD which he tries to control through drinking but only his drive for music can distract him enough from the memories.  This is made more challenging by the promise he made his best friend in the war–that he would look in on his friend’s wife after his friend was killed in battle.

Corey Cott (Newsies) plays the lead capably, and Laura Osnes (Cinderella) plays the young widow with ease.  The cast also draws strength from the thinly written widow’s mother played by Beth Leavel (Drowsy Chaperone).  And they all do a fine job.  The rest of the cast, including the band put together by Cott to compete in a musical contest, are a mix of actors who learned to play instruments and musicians who almost learned how to act.  The band is formed and struggles to find their sound and overcome their own demons from the war.

The journey of these veterans is a compelling idea.  We are accustomed to the image of our World War II veterans coming home victorious and establishing the booming economy and Baby Boom of the 50s.  We are not used to hearing those veterans cast in the more modern light–that they are haunted by war, suicidal at worse and self-medicating at best, and facing difficulty integrating back into the world they left.  That is an idea worth exploring and a story worth telling.

And the director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who choregraphed Hamilton) does an outstanding job bringing most of the songs to life.  There are a few songs that simply become the dreaded stand-and-sing, including one dreadful number near the start that couldn’t be saved anyway.  But most of the songs are filled with some great dancing and complicated choreography.  And there is one moment in the show which is absolutely chilling–you see the members of the band going through their daily life while being closely followed by the ghosts of their deceased friends.  It’s a brutal reminder of the reality some veterans face today and have been facing for decades.

With all these positives it’s hard to imagine the show not working, but it doesn’t.  The songs fail to connect, even the flagship songs just don’t feel that compelling.  The staging and the story tells us we should be reacting to them much more than we do.  This isn’t just because the musical period is a bit dated–if you saw the movie That Thing You Do you know it’s entirely possible to write a song that fits in with society from decades ago and yet still works today.  None of the songs in this show rise to that level.  The story is equally flat footed–predictable at most parts, unbelievable in others.  I don’t know how it could be fixed, but for the sake of the story idea I wish it could be better.

The Bandstand will be heading to Broadway next season and I hope some of the off time can be used to help the show…somehow.  Because I want this show to be better and it has a strong foundation to build upon, it just doesn’t work right now.  If the songs and script could tie the ideas together better this could be a strong contender for some Tony awards next year, otherwise it will just be another blip on the box office radar.

Score: 4 out of 10 swing bands

 

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