REVIEW: Bandstand - Original Broadway Cast
On the penultimate track of the new cast recording of Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor's Bandstand, the final new Broadway musical of the 2016-2017 season, the marvellous Laura Osnes tears into a furious diatribe against the horrors seen by World War two veterans during their service and the difficulties they face in readjusting to civilian life. The song – "Welcome Home" – is genuinely electrifying, the band (which includes six of the show's actors) is red hot, and Osnes is sensational. It's one of those performances that forces you to sit up and pay attention. If everything else in the score was this good, Bandstand would have won every award going. It isn't, and it didn't, but this is still a rather more enjoyable score than you might guess from some of the show's reviews.
The rest of the album is never less than engaging, and some of it is a great deal better than that. Bandstand's simple plot follows a World War Two veteran named Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a musical prodigy before he began his service, as he returns to civilian life and puts together a band of vets (plus one war widow) to enter a nationwide radio contest. The plot, as described in the synopsis included in the lyric booklet, is a somewhat slender, slightly uneasy gotta-make-it-in-showbiz story that tries to blend a pastiche of/tribute to the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s with a serious examination of the impact of PTSD on war veterans. Even on a cast album, shorn of most of the book, the two elements don't always sit convincingly together; the synopsis is invaluable, since a couple of major plot points occur outside the musical material included on the recording, but the overwhelming impression the album gives is that the rather thin plot can't quite support the psychological freight it's meant to carry.
It's not surprising, therefore, that – the final "Welcome Home" aside – the album's highlights tend to be the most straightforward numbers. "Nobody" is a stinging, swinging two-finger salute to the band's detractors; it's also the score's most successful evocation of the period, and Cott and Osnes's voices work wonderfully together. "Love Will Come And Find Me Again," a slow-burning ballad about lost love, is quite lovely, and once again Osnes is superb. And "This Is Life" is a rueful, pretty duet. The rest of the score, I'm afraid, seems to merge together into a kind of sausage-like mass – never bad, always listenable, always engaging, but never quite as exciting or as distinctive as it wants to be. It doesn't help, either, that there's a slight self-consciousness to the show's attempt to evoke the 1940s; Oberacker's music is sometimes spot-on, and sometimes sounds like fresh-as-last-year showtunes dressed up in period clothing, and the lyrics occasionally strain too hard to conjure up an authentic period feel. In "Donny Novitski," when Cott sings a lyric that rhymes 'stogies' with 'perogies', you're listening to the author rather than the character, and that's intermittently the case all the way through the recording.
Still, while it isn't perfect, there's enough good stuff here to keep you listening. The performances – including a sweet turn from Beth Leavel as Osnes's character's mother – are top-notch, the band sounds terrific, and the album's highlights are tremendously enjoyable. If, like me, you haven't seen the show, you may find yourself wondering how well it works in the theatre, but the cast recording, on the whole, is a very pleasant surprise. This isn't a first-tier Broadway score, and it isn't the best score to premiere on Broadway this year, but the band really swings, Cott and Osnes are marvellous company, and the best of the material is very good indeed. And while Osnes's eleven o'clock number may not completely make sense in terms of the plot – in 1945, if someone had started singing frank lyrics about PTSD in a band contest designed as a syrupy, sentimental tribute to "our boys," it's more than likely the plug would have been pulled and the broadcast would have gone off the air – it's an exciting enough performance that such considerations, on a cast album, probably don't matter. For all the material's obvious imperfections, this is a recording you'll want to keep playing.
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Bandstand - 2017 Original Broadway Cast Bandstand Beth Leavel Richard Oberacker Robert Taylor Laura Osnes Corey Cott Toggle Additional (4)