Tricks and gimmicks are used as often as are the tried-and-true as the fallback in the creation of musicals. Imagination and daring are desirable but rare. Therefore qualifying kudos are due to Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor for their totally swing-era-saturated score and the book for “The Bandstand,” now having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Oberacker, whose primary credits list him as a conductor for the Cirque du Soleil as well as the composer for a number of regionally produced musicals, has collaborated with Taylor, a music critic and teacher. They have put their combined energies and talents to making swing, bebop, and jitterbug the modus operandi by which we are returned to 1945.
Set in both Cleveland and New York City, it is the time when servicemen are returning to their homes following the end of World War II. One in particular is attempting to return to normalcy and to follow the dream that he has put on hold. In consideration of its distinctly dated but inherently nostalgic qualities, the dominance of swing as the musical’s motor also puts a constraining grip on this show that could benefit from a few more variations on that motif.
Oberacker’s and Taylor’s other major collaborator is Andy Blankenbuehler, who was recently lauded for his choreography for the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” He has directed and choreographed “The Bandstand” with the necessary verve while demonstrating a vibrant flair for the times. His direction is largely defined by being able to keep up with the pace of the dancing, all of which gives the illusion of being not only non-stop and also un-stoppable.
Jitterbugging and all its associated moves reflect a somewhat limited range of motions and emotions. Its effects, as demonstrated by this otherwise terrific company, grow familiar and redundant too quickly and are not especially sustainable for an entire show. This is not the case with other dance disciplines.
The book falls into the more tried-and-true category as it works in a rather pedestrian plot about the importance of winning a contest, achieving some fame, and with it the love a beautiful woman. The show progresses over the period of a few months and the day of the big contest, in this case to earn enough money playing gigs to afford going from winning a local preliminary contest to the winning of the big event in New York City. Donny has to also worry about winning or losing the girl of his dreams. She is Julia Troy (Laura Osnes), the widow of his army buddy whom he witnessed getting killed in the war. Donny is fulfilling his promise to look after Julia. He does and falls in love with her. It’s easy to see why.
Osnes, who recently enjoyed great success on Broadway in the title role of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” cannot be faulted for her beauty or talent and puts plenty of spirit into her role as the reticent widow who just happens to have a great voice. She sings in the church choir. She also has a great mother, played wonderfully by Beth Leavel. After a bit of reluctance, Julia is recruited to join the band.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with casting Osnes. She has a glorious legit soprano voice, but she sounds like a diva and lacks the timbre, tone, or style that defined the predominantly laid back female vocalists who would front with a band. This creates an issue regarding credibility with the character in Osnes’ otherwise fine performance.
It’s great to see Beth Leavel give her special brand of snappy and smart stand-and-deliver responses as Julia’s go-for-it- mother. The few minutes she has on stage are immensely rewarding. The good-looking Cott (underappreciated as Gaston in last season’s musical revival of “Gigi”) dominates the action throughout with confident singing and some excellent dancing.
At first hearing, it isn’t easy to pick the best from among the 19 songs in the score that stand out for not being in the similar swinging mode. An exception is “Welcome Home,” as sung twice by Julia but more significantly at the final contest, in which she airs the rage and the pain of so many of the returning servicemen. Leavel also impressively puts over the show’s obligatory philosophical song “Everything Happens.”
A major item missing from the show is humor. There is precious little with which to be amused in the story or with the supporting characters that comprise the remaining five in Donny’s six-piece band. As played well by Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard, and Joey Pero, they do, however, provide some poignant examples of men who have found solace in their music but also escape from memories of the war with drugs, alcohol, obesity, and making light of brain injury.
A very handsome unit set designed by David Korins provides various environs from bandstand to interiors to concert halls, all given an extra glow by lighting designer Jeff Croiter. Paloma Young has designed period perfect costumes. All told, the era of “The Bandstand” appears perfectly grounded with its dancing, its look, and by its sounds. It is the vital aura of a hit musical heading for the big time that remains, however, still hovering somewhere above not yet ready to descend with an embrace.
The Bandstand, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. Through Sunday, November 8. $29 to $102. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.