Thursday, November 5, 2015

Theater Reviews—‘The Bandstand' & 'The Humans’ off-Broadway

The Bandstand
Music by Richard Oberacker; book & Lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor
Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbueler
Performances through November 8, 2015
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ

The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam; directed by Joe Mantello
Performances through January 3, 2016
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes in The Bandstand (photo: Jerry Dalia )
A swing musical about the shards left from World War II—when men came home emotionally and physically shattered, and women found themselves widows—The Bandstand, with original songs and a book by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor evoking the era of Benny Goodman as it probes the mental morass of characters looking to finally put the war behind them, does a precarious, semi-successful balancing act between entertainment and psychological study.

Donny Novitski (and yes, there are Polish jokes) returns to Cleveland adrift. He survived the war, but his best buddy Michael, who played in a band with him near the front, died in battle. His survivor’s guilt makes him reluctant to visit Michael's widow Julia to tell her how he died. Meanwhile, he puts together a local band comprising other military men, and when he discovers Julia is a singer too, she joins the group; they also enter a radio contest to try and win a trip to New York City to perform on a national show and in a movie. The predictable trajectory of the story—romance! heartbreak! near-tragedy! happy ending!—is the weakest part of the show.

Oberacker’s music is a sturdy swing-music pastiche that purrs along nicely until the climactic number, an impassioned song called “Welcome Home,” comes out of nowhere, pouring out of Julia’s lungs and the men’s instruments, an affecting admittance of how damaged they still are. The polished cast begins with Corey Cott’s Donny, a nervy bundle of contradictions whose singing and music-making are nothing less than survival mechanisms. The rest of the band comprises Joe Carroll as drummer Johnny, Brandon J. Ellis as bassist Davy, Geoff Packard as trombonist Wayne, Joey Pero as trumpeter Nick and James Nathan Hopkins as sax player Jimmy, all of whom cannot only sing and act well but also persuasively play their instruments.

And, as Julia, there’s the magnetic Laura Osnes, one of our very best singing actresses—and someone who goes from strength to strength with every appearance—showing once again that she can summon not only great beauty but great power in her voice: her raw rendition of "Welcome Home" is guaranteed to leave every last audience member an emotional wreck. 

Andy Blankenbueler’s stylish direction and lively choreography keep the show on the right track even when it bogs down in trite familiarity, such as introducing Donny's parents for no good reason and allowing the usually indispensable Beth Leavel to be saddled with unnecessary baggage as Julia’s sitcom-level mother. (She still sings beautifully.) But whenever Osnes and company let loose with another tune, most of the flaws of The Bandstand are forgiven.

The cast of The Humans (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Stephen Karam’s The Humans, Erik and Deirdre arrive from Scranton to spend a snowy Thanksgiving with youngest daughter Brigid and her older boyfriend Richard in a Chinatown apartment they've just moved into. While oldest daughter Aimee came on Amtrak from Philadelphia, mom and dad drove with the girls' grandmother Fiona, seemingly in the early throes of Alzheimer's.

For 95 minutes, the family talks, argues, yells, apologizes, eats and, finally, calls it a night so the visitors can make it home. Karam writes believable conversational dialogue, knowing when to withhold information only to let it appear naturally later on. Several family secrets are spilled during the course of the evening, and Karam is able to make us feel that we too have lived with these people, getting to know them fairly intimately over the course of his one-act play.

But—of course there’s a "but"—Karam is a slave to contrivance, making The Humans similar to a TV sitcom trying to get serious and illuminate its characters' psychology. The convenient layout of Brigid and Richard’s apartment (perfectly rendered by designer David Zinn)—two distinct floors separated by a winding staircase—makes it too easy for characters to overhear others who think they are safe from prying ears. There always seems to be somebody (and it's always the person being discussed) who catches something he or she shouldn’t have. 

Karam also drags poor Sept. 11 into this mix: Erik and Aimee went to the city that morning because—surprise!—Aimee had a job interview at the World Trade Center, and for awhile Erik couldn’t track Aimee down and thought she had perished. These people have enough in their daily lives to deal with without giving them some ginned up near-tragedy to add to their back story.

Finally, there’s the play's very structure: would a 60-year-old man and his 61-year-old wife take his sickly 79-year-old mother in a car for a three-hour plus drive in snowy weather to New York, only to plan to leave the same day after visiting their daughter for a mere hour and a half? (Forget that Erik has too much to drink so Aimee calls a car for them instead.) At the very least these people would stay over somewhere and start fresh in the morning. 

Reservations aside, Joe Mantello’s always engaging staging and a top-flight ensemble—even among such veterans as Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre) and Cassie Beck (Aimee), Sarah Steele is a formidable presence as Brigid—help make The Humans seem more incisive and truthful than it really is.

No comments: