It’s late 1945, and Donny Novitski has a dream. A big dream. He’s a singer, songwriter and piano player who is struggling to land nightclub gigs in Cleveland, but wants to be a star. A big star.
Notice that he doesn’t dream about musical greatness. Because in his mind, he’s got that already. In his view, and I’m quoting, Frank Sinatra is just “a fake who sings out of tune.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the hero of “The Bandstand,” a mediocre new musical — music by Richard Oberacker, book and lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor — that debuted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn last weekend.
Donny has recently returned to the States after having served, and suffered, in World War II. In his eyes, the world owes him not just gratitude, but Hollywood stardom. The war has taught him nothing about compassion. He’s not defined by his experience, but by his larger-than-life ambition.
Donny — played with an appropriately cocky strut by Corey Cott — won’t let anything get in his way. He’s obnoxious to the band of veterans he puts together. And when he finds out that Julia Trojan (played by Laura Osnes), the widow of a war buddy, has a great voice, he bullies her into singing with the band, even though she’s reluctant.
The bandmates are still suffering, in their own way. Donny’s got insomnia, for instance, and trombonist Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard) needs for everything to be scheduled and regimented, just like it was in the army. The most offensive thing about the musical has to do with drummer Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll), who can hardly think straight after his war experiences. His affliction is used for comic relief. “What day of the week is Sunday?” he asks.
Everything builds toward a song contest in New York that Donny thinks will propel him into the big time. There are obstacles along the way, including the lack of first-class accommodations. Donny’s indignant; how insulting it is to be treated like a normal person.
The show’s best twist takes place in New York; Donny faces a colossal obstacle posed by the crooks running the contest, and finds a way to take the high road while also making meaningful music. It’s a stunner of a scene, and for a moment, “The Bandstand” finds some redemption. The band takes a stand! But then Oberacker and Taylor spoil it with a simplistic feel-good ending.
The songs are generally solid, with highlights including Julia’s big ballad “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” and the catchy “I Know a Guy,” during which the band comes together. The acting really can’t be faulted, and Osnes turns in a more luminous performance than the musical deserves.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the sets, the costumes or the dancing. Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed the current Broadway hit “Hamilton,” aims, overall, for simpler retro vibe (except for that great scene at the talent contest).
But “The Bandstand” doesn’t work as retro entertainment, since it doesn’t really transport us back to another time, but injects something jarring — Donny Novitski, the epitome of a spoiled-brat modern pop star — into it. And that’s the kind of flaw that no amount of songwriting, acting or directing skill can overcome.
“The Bandstand” runs at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Nov. 8; visit papermill.org.
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