WWII Vets Swing Big on Broadway in “Bandstand”
WWII Vets Swing Big on Broadway in “Bandstand”
“Bandstand” is the powerful new Broadway musical about a fictional World War II veteran from Cleveland, Ohio—Donny Novitski (played by Corey Cott)—who comes home from the war and immerses himself back into his music. When a national radio contest is announced to take place in NYC, Donny assembles a swing band of fellow military veterans and a Gold Star wife who, through music and their relationships, help each other cope with the realities of their post-war lives. Their collective journey of making music and finding their way to personal and professional successes makes for an uplifting musical that pays proper tribute to the men and women who have lost more than most of us will ever know.
Corey Cott commands the stage as Donny and really makes the audience understand this man’s struggles to try and get his life to resemble how it was before the war—except that’s not as easy as it sounds. A piano player, he’s scrambling for gigs—while determined to win that radio contest—and is also tasked with checking in on the widow of his friend from the war who didn’t make it back. Donny is riddled with guilt and anger, but also feels out of place and pushed aside by a world moving forward that doesn’t really understand or recognize what he has physically (but not mentally or emotionally) left behind. Besides also being from northeast Ohio and around the same age as the guy he’s portraying, Cott completely embodies Donny, making this man’s struggles and triumphs feel urgent and very real. Right now, I can’t imagine another actor playing this part because Cott’s intensity and commitment to the role is tangible and a pleasure to watch.
It’s not just Cott who shines onstage, though, as he is surrounded by an equally engaging band of quadruple threats—yep, everyone in the The Donny Nova Band acts, sings, dances and plays their own instruments. Geoff Packard (as order-driven Wayne Wright on trombone), James Nathan Hopkins (as law school student Jimmy Campbell on alto saxophone and clarinet), Alex Bender (as music instructor Nick Radel on trumpet), Brandon J. Ellis (as alcoholic jokester Davy Zlatic on upright bass) and Joe Carroll (as pill-popping amnesiac Johnny Simpson on percussion) all elevate each other on that stage, playing beautifully together and showcasing how it’s more than okay to get and give help.
Rounding out the band is two-time Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes as Julia Trojan, a department store cosmetics counter clerk and church vocalist who joins The Donny Nova Band as its featured lead singer. Though Julia did not fight overseas, the war took away her sense of normalcy too by leaving her a widow. Her involvement with the band leads her to sharing her poems with her newfound friends and finding love again. With this role, Osnes continues to be one of Broadway’s most enchanting leading ladies and she gives Julia some extra gumption.
Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, “Bandstand” is an inspiring and important stage show that beautifully visualizes one of the most serious topics that people are afraid to talk about in public—PTSD. Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a two-time Tony Award winner for his choreography for “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”) masterfully puts emotions into motion, creating movement for the mental weight that these veterans continue to carry around with them even though they are back on American soil. While no longer at war in the Pacific or Europe, these men are still there in their minds, and Blankenbuehler choreographs segments of the show in such a way that you can always see what these men are internally fighting with. There is haunting a sequence when the band members are physically attached to and followed around by men they served with and it’s only through their coping mechanisms that these emotional burdens are temporarily lifted and the veterans find some moments of peace. "Bandstand" also features lively swing chorepgraphy to accompany the gig and contest-oriented scenes.
The visual and performing arts have long been a means for people to both express their internal struggles as well as clear their heads for a bit and focus mental and physical energies on something besides stresses from prior trauma(s). In “Bandstand,” music is a safe way for the members of the band to deal with their pasts and create futures for themselves. There are lines from the song “Breathe” that Donny sings, “Breathe through the instrument/Breathe through the end of the phrase/And as everyone plays it gets easier/easier.” For the band, music makes life easier. Their struggles aren't completely resolved, but these characters choose to keep going.
While the band members in “Bandstand” are fictional, their PTSD and struggles to re-assimilate back into their lives are very real. I have never seen a show that has handled this subject matter so upfront and with such grace and humanity. I teared up several times throughout the show in empathy with these characters and because so much of the plot hits close to home. This show has received "6 Certified" status from Got Your 6, a nonprofit that works with the performing arts industry to empower veterans and accurately incorporate their experiences into popular culture to engage and educate audiences of veterans and civilians alike.
“Bandstand” is a beautiful gift wrapped in toe-tapping original music and a heartfelt book by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor. Having also grown up in northeast Ohio, I recognized the familiar sense of goodwill and community that Midwesterners exude and will always chuckle at mentions of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. I hope audiences love this show as much as I did and embrace these characters, their stories and songs with open arms.