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NY Theater Reviews

Laura Osnes/ Ph: Jeremy Daniel

RETURN FROM WAR

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

Despite its two-dimensional characters, this is an old-fashioned musical with crowd-pleasing numbers.

An essentially old-fashioned musical with a few new-fangled twists, Bandstand is likely to become one of the most crowd-pleasing musicals of the very crowded 2016-2017 theater season. Buoyed by a pair of charismatic, well-sung performances by the equally gorgeous Corey Cott and Laura Osnes, a tuneful score by Broadway newcomers Rob Taylor and Richard Obercraker, and some dynamite 1940s-inspired choreography by Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directs), the show manages to prompt far more cheers than jeers – despite some unfortunate missteps in the book and execution.

The basic story could come from a 1940s movie. Immediately after the end of World War II, former musical prodigy Danny Novitski (Cott) returns home with two missions on his mind: to regain work in the busy clubs of Cleveland and to check in on Julia (Osnes), the widow of his best army buddy.

Initially, neither course runs smoothly. Danny’s jobs have been filled in his absence, leaving him with only a few gigs as an accordionist at weddings. But once he hears about a national NBC contest that will earn fame and fortune for a swing band, he recruits a group of local veterans – Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins), Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis), Nick Radel (Alex Bender), Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard), and Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll) – and forms his own sextet.

Like Danny, each of them is suffering from some form of PTSD and use music to help them escape their painful memories of the war. It’s a nice touch, and one that Taylor and Obercracker should be commended for. Still, the writers sledgehammer this point too often in the script (especially in the first act), and the band members rarely rise above the level of two-dimensional characters, each with their own signature quirk.

As for Danny and Julia, he’s initially reluctant to visit her because he’s kinda-sorta responsible for her late husband Michael’s death. But once they meet, they click instantly, so it’s no spoiler to say that they’ll eventually fall in love and live happily ever after despite his problematic past. Better still, Julia is both a dynamite singer and an amateur poet who soon becomes the band’s shining star and chief lyricist.

The score, a cut above much of this season’s more disappointing fare, provides some first-rate opportunities for the cast to showcase their considerable talents. Osnes sings the hell out of such ballads as “Who I Was,” “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” and the bitter-tinged “Welcome Home.” Cott soloes strongly on “Ain’t We Proud,” and everyone comes together with brio for the toe-tapping “Right This Way,” “Nobody” and “I Got a Theory.”

The show’s biggest mystery – other than whether the band will win the NBC contest – is the casting of Tony winner Beth Leavel as Julia’s no-nonsense mother June. The creators have stranded this sensational performer with next-to-nothing to either do or sing. (She does get one very moving, second-act ballad, “Everything Happens,” but it simply ends midstream.) I am equally puzzled why Taylor and Obercracker, who obviously care deeply about their own material, couldn’t have avoided some obvious anachronisms (such as film noir and blacklist) or come up with a more credible conclusion.

As wonderful as Blankenbuehler’s dances can be, I also wish he hadn’t tried to incorporate so much movement into scenes and bits that really don’t require it, like serving drinks or moving pianos – a concept that proves more distracting than delightful. In general, the work might have benefitted from the eyes and hands of an actual director, one who could have sharpened many of the musical’s rougher edges.

Still, many audiences will be more than willing to take a chance on a show about second chances. And to use the title of one of the show’s songs, “You Deserve It.”