Friday, October 23, 2015

'The Bandstand' Examines WWII In A New Light

Musicals about (or set in the period of) World War II?
Well, we suppose the most notable was South Pacific. The now landmark musical debuted in 1949 and vividly depicted the struggles and culture clash faced by those who fought the good fight against the Japanese in the Pacific theater.
South Pacific sort of defined the war musical, if there is such a thing. Because, honestly -- how can you really make a musical about war?
One approach is to incorporate the music of the war era. And certainly, WWII gave us plenty of great music -- music that uplifted our spirits, tugged at our heartstrings, reaffirmed and strengthened our patriotism and helped us to remain optimistic during some very dark days. That's the approach that was taken by Over Here, the Andrews Sisters musical that premiered in 1974 and helped launch the careers of John Travolta, Treat Williams, Ann Reinking and Marilu Henner. Over Here concerned the plight of those who faced the war from the homefront and worked hard to find ways to support the troops.
And then there's the recently-revived On The Town, the Comden and Green musical that tells the story of three American sailors unleashed for their 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple where they find adventure, love, and frequent occasions to break into catch songs such as "New York, New York." It's like three WWII stories in one, all covered in the course of a single day.
Each of these musicals had their own "hook" -- their own raison d'etre: East vs. West and intolerance; the war years at home and the pathos of an ever-so-brief reprieve from the war.
But what about the real cost of WWII -- the real injuries, trauma, upheaval and nightmarish struggles faced by returning military? What about the aftermath of the war and it's impact on the lives of those who came home and on those that they returned home to? What about that?
The new musical The Bandstand, running now through November 8 at the storied Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn [NJ] asks that question and attempts to tell that story through the plight of six just-back-from-the-front WWII vets and a Gold Star widow. With dashes of irony, relived memories and even humor, we see that these vets have real problems. One is hyperactive, another is probably an alcoholic, still another is hooked on pain killers and yet another is obsessive-compulsive. But somehow they manage to come together via their love of music to form a successful band with the gal (Julia) as the lead balladeer and sometimes songwriter, collaborating with the group leader, a guy named Donny from Cleveland.
At the heart of this new outing are the show's very appealing and rapidly-rising Broadway stars, Corey Cott and Laura Osnes. Osnes gained Tony nominations for her work in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and Bonnie and Clyde while Cott won plaudits for his recent star turn in Gigi and his stint in the long-running Newsies. When Cott and Osnes are combined with the irrepressible Tony award winner Beth Leavel (as Julia's mother) and a fine ensemble cast, we have all the makings of memorable musical magic. Osnes shines in several numbers including Love Will Come and Find Me Again and Welcome Home while Cott burnishes his leading man credentials in Donny Novitski, Right This Way and Give Me A Reason. As for Leavel she's superbly on-point with two incisive numbers, Men Never Like To Talk and Everything Happens. She's a Broadway veteran who knows how to enrich every scene she's in.
In fact, Cott, Osnes and Leveal are the best reasons for seeing this show as all three stars contribute 1000 percent plus to the effort.
And the story (with a strong second-act) is helped by some unexpected twists and turns and a surprise ending that refuses to trivialize or patronize. It helps that the show is held together by a real, plausible narrative even when it may seem to lack a bit of snap.
With music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor, The Bandstand is a daring attempt at dramatizing and musicalizing the aftermath of a big, messy deadly war without becoming dark or worse yet, moribund. The Paper Mill deserves mucho credit for mounting this show which, for the most part succeeds.
And, after all in the post-Vietnam, post-gulf war era with what we know about PTSD and other maladies of war, shouldn't we be aware enough, mature enough and concerned enough to welcome the examination of such a topic which (save for a film like The Best Years of Our Lives) hasn't really been illuminated?

Click here for information about or tickets to The Bandstand.

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