There’s a different “band of brothers” on stage in “Bandstand,” the earnest and often-entertaining musical that, set immediately following WWII, never quite achieves its noble ambitions. Despite the fluid staging and evocative choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”), an uneven book, undistinguished dialogue and only-serviceable tunes keep the show from meeting its deeper, darker and good-intentioned aspirations.
The band in question is the one that Donny Novitski (Corey Cott of Broadway’s “Gigi”) puts together when he returns home to Cleveland, following his combat service in World War II. Once a young hotshot on the music scene, Donny finds, contrary to the title of the opening song, that it’s not “just like it was before.” There are no prime gigs for this composer-pianist vet, as he repeatedly hears the empty refrain from those intent on only looking forward: “But we thank you for your service.”
That feeling of it’s-always-fair-weather American optimism denies the difficult details of the past, and it’s at the heart of the show, which joins “A Bronx Tale” as the second musical this Broadway season to originate at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.
A nationwide radio contest to find the best swing band in America — with the promise of an appearance in an MGM movie for the winning group — gives Donny the idea (not to mention a sense of purpose) to form a band comprised of returning military men. Joining them as the group’s Gold Star singer is Julia (Laura Osnes, of Broadway’s revamped “Cinderella”), who happens to be the widow of Donny’ best buddy. As eye-rolling luck would have it, she also writes poetry whose stanzas work remarkably well in the band’s lyrically-impoverished tunes.
Despite all the upbeat tempos that rev up the ensemble’s terrific dance moves, there’s disturbing memories haunting the band members struggling with variations of post-traumatic stress. There’s the Johnny (Joe Carroll), the drummer who has memory issues; Davy (Brandon J. Ellis), on bass, seeking refuge in booze to keep the memories of Dachau at bay; trombone player Wayne (Geoff Packard), an obsessive-compulsive whose marriage has fallen apart; trumpeter Nick (Alex Bender), who has trouble with his temper; and Jimmy (James Nathan Hopkins), the saxophone player who is also straining in his efforts to be next-to-normal.
Then there’s Donny, who has survivor’s guilt and a secret about Julia’s husband that has left him unmoored. Only music seems to offer any balm for these walking wounded, who feel ignored, disconnected and exploited.
But these characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, with few defining musical moments of their own as the will-they-or-won’t-they-make-it-to-NYC contest storyline dominates. That no one in Cleveland would help pay for the band’s expenses — at least until the last minute — is a major plot weakness in the sketchy book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker.
Oberacker also pens the mood-setting, pleasant and easily forgettable pastiche songs and lyrics (the latter with Taylor). An edgy, climactic song clearly intends to be a show-stopper, but just doesn’t measure up.
The cast is made up of solid performers, most of who play their own instruments. Cott has a fine little-boy-lost vulnerability and angst beneath his mask of hard-driving energy and resilliance. Osnes brings warmth and intelligence to the otherwise predictable role. There’s occasional humor to lighten the proceedings, with toss-offs by band members, and especially by Beth Leavel as June, Julia’s wise and wry mother, who can wring laughs and significance out of serving a plate of deviled eggs.
Production values are all swell, including Nevin Steinberg’s sound, Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Paloma Young’s working-class threads. David Korins’ unit set of a weathered bandstand is a constant reminder that music is a source of comfort and joy through good times and bad.