Show/Venue: Bandstand at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
Date: Thursday, May 11th, 2017 @ 7:00pm & Sunday, August 20th, 2017 @ 2:00pm
Starring: Laura Osnes, Corey Cott, Joe Carroll, Max Clayton, Ryan Kasprzak, Morgan Marcell
Since moving to New York City, I’ve learned so much more about theatre and my small obsession from seeing Regional & Touring productions as a kid, has really blossomed. As a pretty big “Fansie” of Newsies, I came to know about the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ and how they’re helping create some of the best new musicals that come to Broadway. It was in 2015, that a little production called Bandstand, caught my attention. First of all, Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Grease) and Corey Cott (Newsies, Gigi), and Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, So You Think You Can Dance), were attached to the project, which was enough to get me interested. Second of all, there were a few others of my favorite Broadway ensemble members involved, so I was especially excited to hear that it would be transferring to Broadway.
Due to this Broadway transfer, I knew I wanted to see the show early in the Tony Awards Season and with my new job, I was able to get a discounted ticket in May to see the show. At the top of the show, we see various soldiers in the battlefields, but the focus is on Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), as he moves downstage and upstage throughout the battle. Slowly, the men return home from the battle and Donny returns home to Cleveland, Ohio (“Just Like It Was Before”). Like many other veterans, Donny struggles with adjusting back to “normal life” and needs to find a way to cope. Luckily, he was a piano prodigy as a teen and finds that music is a way to save his mind from wandering into dark places. While struggling to find a venue to perform in Donny hears about a bandstand contest where NBC will select a band from each State and they will perform for a chance to be featured in a movie. This contest will be the way Donny can make a living and survive in the world, post-military life. The contest will be a featured as a Tribute to the Troops, so Donny is the perfect candidate but how can he start to put together a band?
Through a network of veterans (“I Know a Guy”), Donny finds his band, each a member of various branches of the military. They have all turned towards their music to escape their own personal demons; some drink, some find solace in obsessive compulsiveness, some busy themselves with teaching. The band is made up of Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Campbell) on sax & clarinet, Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis) on string bass, Nick Radel (Alex Bender) on trumpet, Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) on trombone and Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll, Cinderella) on drums. After a few rehearsals, Donny knows that the guys have a great sound and Donny takes on vocals, but something is still missing (“Ain’t We Proud”).
In between rehearsals, Donny knows that he needs to check in on Julia, the widow of his best friend from combat, “Rubber.” Donny goes to Julia’s house to introduce himself and over an awkward dinner with her and her mother, we learn that Rubber’s nickname came from his surname, Trojan, and that Julia, is a wonderful singer (“Who I Was”) and still longing for closure on her husband’s death. She’s tired of everyone in town treating her with pity, because she’s a “Gold Star Wife.”
Once Julia’s mom has told Donny that Julia is a great singer, Donny thinks he may have found the answer to his band’s vocalist problems. One catch: Julia doesn’t like singing in public, only in church. Never deterred, Donny heads to church to see Julia sing. With a little bit of persuasion, Donny convinces Julia to come and sing with the band (“First Steps First”). They also make an adjustment to the band’s name, from the Donny Novitski Band to the Donny Nova Band. They come up with some great original songs (“Breathe” and “You Deserve It”), but they still need more ideas. It’s then that Julia shows Donny some poems that she has been writing, since losing her husband, which will become some of their best numbers.
The band easily wins the Ohio contest, but they learn that they must pay for their own fare to New York City for the final rounds (“Love Will Come and Find Me Again”). They go into overdrive and start playing any gig that they can book, hoping to earn enough money to get them train tickets and lodging in NYC.
The second act begins with a swinging number (“Nobody”), which was featured on the Tony Awards and showcases some of Andy Blankenbuehler’s best work. The band finds new energy through their gigs and by saying “You know who tells me no? Nobody!” We see a little bit of each of the band member’s personal struggles, but with the momentum from winning the Ohio contest, it’s easy to see that the band is hitting their stride (“The Boys are Back”).
Cleveland starts to rally (“I Got a Theory”) and they are able to raise the money from all the venues that have been hosting their gigs. In fact, it’s enough money to send everyone to New York City on a First Class train! As Julia and Donny grow closer, she asks him again about how her husband passed away. Donny finally relents and explains that he was responsible for Rubber’s death under friendly fire, as a live grenade rolled back into the bunker where they were hiding out. Donny made it out, but Rubber was not so lucky.
Julia abruptly leaves the band and retreats to her home. It’s there that her mother encourages her to keep singing (“Everything Happens”), as it’s what her husband would have wanted her to do. After all, Julia needs an identity that is not just a “Gold Star Wife” and she can’t let the boys in the band down. While the band worries about what to do without her, Julia shows up and brings a new poem as a peace offering to the band. This poem becomes “Welcome Home” and describes each of the Donny Nova Band member’s struggles in their return to civilian life – Donny – insomnia, Jimmy – focusing on law school, Davy - alcoholism, Nick – prisoner of war, Wayne - OCD and Johnny – amnesia. The song is powerful, emotional and helps everyone identify with their own struggles, but they know this version could never be performed in public. They adjust the song into a newer version, a love song between a woman and her love returning from the war.
Equipped with new songs and renewed motivation to win the contest, Cleveland gathers to send the band off to NYC. Fresh off the train and in NYC, the band does out to explore the city before getting their chance to audition (“A Band in New York City”). After spending all day in the city, Donny escorts Julia back to her hotel room and it’s here that they start to acknowledge that they have feelings for one another (“This Is Life”).
When the band arrives at the studio, they learn that only the top 10 bands will get to perform on the actual NBC Broadcast. Even though the executives seem to write them off, as soon as they hear “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,” the band makes it into the final cut! As everyone prepares to be on the telecast, Jimmy barges into the rehearsal studio. He’s been up all night reviewing the contract with NBC and saw that if they perform “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” on the broadcast that the studio will own all the rights to the song! In a last-minute swap, they decide that Julia will sing their original version of “Welcome Home,” with all the tragedies that veterans face when they come back from war. They know that NBC will never take the risk of actually producing and promoting this version of the song.
A year later, we see that the Donny Nova Band did not win the competition, so they aren’t featured in the movie, but that’s a blessing. As the leave the theatre, having watched the competition winner’s in the movie, they are approached by many teenage girl fans and their families. Fortunately, enough people saw them on the NBC broadcast that they have developed a significant following and are able to tour the US without any limitations from a network contract.
Although some of the songs did not stay in my head, the show left an impression on me. Shortly after I saw the show, I met a Navy officer during Fleet Week in NYC. You might say that my experience was not unlike what you might see in a Lifetime movie or some romantic comedy; but it certainly altered my perspective of the military. That, coupled, with my Mom’s passing during the following week, made me ache to see this show again.
In the second showing, some of the stories resonated even more and I found myself breaking into tears during certain numbers. I appreciated the choreography more. I listened to the wonderful sounds of Laura Osnes’ voice, more intently. I empathized with the characters more. Overall, I was glad I got to see this show a few times and wish that it could have had a longer life on Broadway. I hope that there will be a touring production and that more people will get to experience this powerful story.
Just Like It Was Before
I Know a Guy
Ain’t We Proud
Who I Was
Just Like It Was Before (Reprise)
First Steps First
You Deserve It
Love Will Come and Find Me Again
Right This Way
I Got a Theory
A Band in New York City
This Is Life