Welcome Home to The Bandstand
October in New Jersey is a perennial rendezvous with autumnal perfection, and nowhere is this more evident than in the crisp, glowing environs of South Mountain in fall. And as this marks this blogger’s first post in a most appreciative second season as Paper Mill commentator, I must say, “homecoming” was a word I could not shake as I attended opening night of Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s The Bandstand this week.
For sure as the throngs of eager subscribers, media, and attendees alighted Brookside Drive under an early Cheshire cat moon like the so many leaves from the trees, the production we were about to experience would prove to be as profound and enchanting as the tawny, rust-colored foliage which drew many of us to this little slice of Heaven in the first place.
Unseasonably cool yet typically sublime, we theatergoers were initially introduced to the mood of the musical play as we approached Baldwin Court and the grand entrance of the playhouse; The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers…their nostalgic, postbellum melodies floated through the atmosphere as tangibly as the waft of nearby hearths, and provided a swinging bounce to each passing step. Our annual return to the beginning of a new season of Paper Mill was already off to a rather charming start.
However, as the evening progressed, Oberacker and Taylor would prove nostalgia was not the only order of the day. Nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake would in itself provide a quaint and entertaining night of theater, but the creative team of this new and original work had much more in mind.
In fact, few could guess, upon initial impression, how important and current this “swing show,” The Bandstand, would turn out to be.
The story is that of returning soldier Donny Novitski (Corey Cott). Haunted by his experiences in World War II, singer/pianist Donny seeks comfort by creating a swing band which will, simultaneously, make life “Just Like It Was Before” (as sung in Act I), create a new future, and validate the death of his wartime friend and fellow performer, Michael Trojan. Assembling a collage of fellow musicians -- all fellow vets -- Donny and his band persist through every conceivable club in Cleveland, Ohio; however, they only really start to take off once they employ the vocal stylings of the widow of Donny’s old war buddy – the lovely Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). (Julia’s mother being endearingly portrayed by the incomparable Beth Leavel.) After an appearance on a nationally televised radio show, the band secures an appearance in New York City. Though they face adversity, the band makes it to their East Coast gig, and Donny ends up, through a relationship of twists and turns, developing a meaningful romance with Julia.
In his Director’s Note, Tony Award ®-winning Director / Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights) comments,
“Working on The Bandstand has been an exciting opportunity to pay homage to the classic stage and movie musicals of the Golden Age.”
And from this audience member’s perspective, it does. The style and mood of the entire production from its swing score to classically romantic plot hearken back to the classic days of Broadway.
But as Mr. Blankenbuehler later adds, the show does more than merely imitate. It portrays older themes, new.
For while The Bandstand is reminiscent of, say, White Christmas, in that its plot portrays returning vets using music to re-acclimate to life stateside, it also possesses the drama and conflict of the film The Best Years of Our Lives. Band members Johnny, Davy, Jimmy, Wayne and Nick (played respectively by Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, and Joey Pero) all deal with an assortment of post-war adversity – the lingering pain of physical wounds, the anxiety of living a renewed life of independent choices, and the pressure to make life count after surviving an ordeal which consumed so many of one’s fellow comrades.
For these men, the homecoming they faced was their second war. This is not an easy theme to portray effectively without becoming overly-sentimental, but Mr. Oberacker and Mr. Taylor do not fall into this trap. They achieve a winning story through highly dramatic lyrics set among the backdrop of a familiar swing beat and sound. Songs such as “You Deserve It,” “Worth It,” and “Welcome Home” all reflect the angst of these newly-returned soldiers as they try to process the war they just went through and the disconnected society they are supposed to rejoin – the songs add depth and power to the production and set it apart from mere “period piece.” These songs – along with intermittent battle flashback sequences – make a statement; they say, “Tonight’s theatrical experience will take you back to a very romanticized period, but we are going to contemplate some very relevant and important issues in the process.”
Paper Mill Playhouse Producing Artistic Director, Mark S. Hoebee and Managing Director Todd Schmidt add in their program notes,
“The Bandstand takes place in those months directly following (World War II), when soldiers returned home bearing the emotional scars of wartime turmoil, an affliction that wasn’t fully understood then but which we now know is posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.”
We “now know” these facts because seventy-plus years of science and study since World War II have been grimly thrust, yet again, into the arena of war; and as we all know, sadly, today is no different. As a consequence of our most recent military actions overseas, our society once again finds itself dealing with the tragedy of a veteran population struggling to cope with the obstacles and demons of their own homecoming.
And it is here where The Bandstand finds its relevance.
At the climax of the play, Julia and the Band turn the tables on the disingenuous corporate sponsors of the New York radio appearance by changing their appointed musical number at the last minute; instead of the lighthearted and agreed-upon tune, the group plays the story of the struggling, returning soldier in the powerful musical number, “Welcome Home.” Their lyrics and tone are unabashed and raw – a stark contrast to the era’s timeless yet starry popular music. The number set this show apart from other war musicals and definitely resonated with the modern audience. And if they were at all like this viewer, it led audience members who thought they were attending the evening’s performance for a musical stroll down Memory Lane to contemplate the very real circumstances of our conquering heroes – then and today.
In this way, I found this season’s Paper Mill homecoming a humbling and moving experience, and one which hopefully entertains as much as it inspires conversation about how we all may best welcome home our veterans today and in the future.
The Bandstand by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse through November 8. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343 or by clicking here.
Photos c/o author’s personal collection.
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.