World War II and its aftermath seem like a pretty swell period – if you’re going by the stage and screen musicals that were made at the time. On the Town, Thousands Cheer, Anchors Aweigh: all used the war to paint an bright picture of patriotism and victory-fueled optimism in vivid Technicolor. Over 70 years later, new musical Bandstand is now taking up the World War II era once again. But this time, it finally becomes clear why these war-torn Americans needed escapism in the first place.
Set immediately after the war in 1945, Bandstand centers on a group of musical veterans and a grief-stricken war widow, who cope with post-war suffering and disillusionment by channeling their ambitions into a national songwriting contest. A specter of trauma pervades the entire musical – even as the show embraces the gung-ho spirit of the classic “let’s put on a show” trope – remaining acutely aware of how for these veterans, life can never go “back to normal.”
By embracing both the lure of the Big Band era and the dark emotions that lie underneath, Bandstand successfully toes the line between nostalgia and refreshing realism, indulging audiences with the midcentury aesthetics that make us long for yesteryear without erasing the real problems its inhabitants faced.
This balance is executed perfectly by the show’s design; David Korins’ set design evokes the era’s visuals without veering into indulgent spectacle, and the sepia and purple hues of Jeff Croiter’s lighting cast a warm, nostalgic haze while always keeping a somber, colder tone at bay.
The show’s cast, too, manages to capture these characters as both charismatic underdogs and the complex survivors whose joy always has a darker tinge. Corey Cott winningly portrays the tenacity and sensitivity of bandleader Donny Novitski, while Laura Osnes’ depiction of war widow Julia subverts her familiar ingénue role with convincing depth and grief. As Julia’s mother, Beth Leavel steals the show in a potentially thankless role, inducing applause with a single dryly-delivered quip.
Of course, much of Bandstand’s marketing has emphasized that it’s “from the choreographer of Hamilton.” Fans of Hamilton looking for something in the same vein might be disappointed – Bandstand’s commitment to its midcentury setting is a far cry from Hamilton’s contemporary interpretation of history. But Bandstand is unmistakably Andy Blankenbuehler’s production – and thankfully so.
In Blankenbuehler’s past work as the choreographer of In the Heights and Hamilton, his choreography has served as an infusion of kinetic energy, embodying Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhythmic narratives even in moments where the dancing was not the star. As a director, Blankenbuehler has now made that energy Bandstand’s hallmark, deploying dance as a storytelling tool whose usefulness extends far beyond the visual pleasures of a slick dance break.
Audiences looking forward to buoyant swing dance numbers won’t be let down here, but these more traditional dance moments are but one form the choreography takes throughout the production. In this director/choreographer’s hands, movement becomes a way to reflect characters’ inner demons, inject moments with subtle urgency, and create seamless transitions between scenes that streamline the action – though Blankenbuehler is also deft enough to know when to pull back and let stillness reign.
The choreography combines the high-flying thrill of swing with the cool, grounded classic jazz style first pioneered in the 1940’s by Jack Cole. Punctuating these classic forms are moments of fiercely accented rhythms from soft-shoe hoofing and the outstretched limbs and sharp, pulsing motions that have defined much of Blankenbuehler’s past choreography, giving the impression that the dancers are expelling energy far past their fingertips. This blend of forms personifies the veterans’ emotional turmoil while evoking the period, oscillating between simmering restraint and explosive release.
Beyond its aesthetic joys, Bandstand’s choreography works as an equal collaborator that elevates the book and score. Blankenbuehler’s movements add nuance to Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor’s book that can’t be captured through words, while keeping the already tightly-focused plot swinging forward at an enjoyably quick pace. The choreography physically expresses the Big Band beats of Oberacker’s – pleasurable, if not always particularly memorable – score, making music and rhythm feel as vitally present onstage as they are in these characters’ lives. To these disillusioned veterans yearning to move forward, music is the key to success. Thankfully for Bandstand, Blankenbuehler knows that dance is too.