If the theater were a laboratory, let’s consider what elements we might want to combine to make a hit show.
We’ll start with the Swing Era, and victory, with the GIs home at least. Stir in nationwide radio broadcasts, a battle of the big bands, and musicians striving to make it. Add the heartbreak of a buddy lost in combat, and restless veterans moving on.
Don’t forget a guy in love with a gal, the gal singing her heart out, and momma knows best.
“Bandstand” bravely attempts to harness all these potent touchstones and unify them into one defining blockbuster. Watching it unfold is like seeing a textbook open to “Broadway Musical.”
The show bursts with energy, and the performers ace their assignments with sparkly panache. The dancing is intricate, thrilling and flashy. We get some laughs, some quirky folks, and a dose of grief. The designs serve the action, and the music is big and brassy.
But as all the parts roll along, we wait for the payoff — that moment when everything aligns, to transport us as one with the characters — so that in a way, we can sing together with them.
Laura Osnes and Corey Scott play the leads, and they are in fine voice, compelling and charismatic. The plot, that familiar path of a misunderstood dreamer striving to take his music to the top and win his gal along the way, telegraphs “classic old-fashioned musical” time and time again, which would be terrific if only it lived up to that big challenge.
To its great credit, in an era of jukebox musicals, the show bypasses the authentic music of the day, and dares the tough premise of actors playing instruments onstage as a combo (backed by a pit orchestra). Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins and Geoff Packard — as veterans facing a host of post-war adjustments in Cleveland — carry this off bravely, in scenes that mix musicianship with a host of travails the band faces on its way to a big showdown in New York.
Throughout, the direction and choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler is brisk and energetic. The dance numbers are jitterbug wonders.
But, for a show about music and musicians, “Bandstand” wanders in a parallel universe all of its own. Let us remember the wisdom of the ages: “It doesn’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Richard Oberacker’s score does not convey the sound or the drive of the era’s many great bands, and it lacks the urgency or novelty to succeed on its own.
This deficiency of conception flares up in other choices the productions attempts to sell. A needless sophomoric joke about a character’s name keeps looping through the action. The dialogue dares to proclaim that Sinatra sings flat, and to compare the band’s music to Duke Ellington’s.
Usually, such hubris is the clue to some heavy payback, but “Bandstand” rolls on, peppy and oblivious. Something was left out, back in the kitchen.