World War II ended over 70 years ago. It was a remarkable period in American history as soldiers returned home from the war and began to pick up the pieces and start their lives again. Time were different and the thinking of those who returned was different too. A brand new show now playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse examines some of the issues that arose in “The Bandstand.” Directed and produced by Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler, “The Bandstand” features a book and lyrics by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor. Music is by Oberacker.
The story is set in 1945 as World War II is ending and American soldiers are returning home to their families, friends, and they lives they left behind. In the opening song titled “Just Like It Was Before,” they are being told it’s time to get back to life like it was before they left. But they quickly discover that they are different people and things are not working like they did in the past. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) decides to go for his dream of getting his original songs published and played. To do it, he decides to enter a national song writing contest that would give him the desired recognition if he won. He has the song, but he needs the band. So he sets about recruiting musicians who have returned from war to make up this band.
He gathers five men to make this band work. Willing to work hard, these men (played by Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, and Joey Pero) are experiencing what we now call PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is haunting each of them in different ways. Some are playing their trumpet furiously, others are shadow boxing and fighting, still others are out at the bar trying to drink away their bad feelings and dreams. They are doing everything except talking about it or getting help for it. In some cases, it is ruining lives such as the one who works in the day and plays music by night whose wife finally leaves him. Their demons are shown in a unique way at various points during the show. Their representation of these demons allows a most poignant song to be sung at the end of the show titled “Welcome Home” where finally someone brings out all the things that these men have been dealing with since “winning the war” and returning home. It is a very poignant moment in this show.
Interestingly, the words for “Welcome Home” get written by the main female lead in the show named Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). Her husband was killed in combat and she ends up becoming the singer with this band. Donny writes the music and without realizing it at first, she has the right words that eventually get used. It is a nice tying up of loose ends the way it all comes together.
Without a doubt, PTSD it is a difficult subject to deal with but “The Bandstand” is not a depressing show to see.
In many ways, this show truly is a representation of how the World War II veterans and members of that generation dealt with their problems in that they lived with them and tried to live as good a life as they could.
And although many had demons that haunted them for the rest of their lives, they did their best to feel a part of life again and continue to contribute to the country they loved.
Laura Osnes is wonderful in this role. She is like peaches and cream on stage with a voice that is so well controlled and able to hit all the notes effortlessly. You enjoy watching her onstage because she moves with such grace and purpose. Her performance as Julia is so believable that you route for her from the very first time you meet her. Corey Cott who plays Donny has a winning stage presence. Your eyes are constantly drawn to him. He sings very well and his passion to get his group to New York and win the contest keeps the entire show moving along. He and Osnes have the chemistry needed to be a winning pair together in this show.
Fascinating in a different way are the men who play the members of the band. They are moving all over and in and out of their roles and meet ups with their demons. Be assured they look and sound like a real band might have sounded like back in the day. Also of note is Beth Leavel who plays Julia’s mother, Mrs. Adams. Her humor and fine acting adds levity to what could be tough to take.
The music in this show is all brand new. Some of it leans towards a swing style and still other songs are ballads, necessary to tell the tale. A huge round of applause should go to the creatives of this show for creating all new music. We don’t see that enough anymore.
“The Bandstand” plays in Millburn at the Paper Mill Playhouse eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday now through Nov. 8, 2015. Ticket purchases can be made by calling 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org.