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‘Bandstand’ review: Band of war vets serves up music and emotion

Laura Osnes and the cast of

Laura Osnes and the cast of "Bandstand," reportedly the first stage show certified in a campaign supporting accuracy in military-themed art. Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel

WHAT “Bandstand”

WHERE Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

INFO $59-$159; 212-239-6200; bandstandbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Emotionally and visually challenging but shapeless.

The title “Bandstand” is a curveball. So is the subtitle, “The New American Musical.” For audiences of a certain age, the name of the season’s final musical suggests those dopey and adored teen dance shows that began on ’50s TV. To audiences of a different certain age, the ’40s look of the publicity photos implies a happy story of the bands that entertained the troops in World War II and moviegoers forevermore.

Once inside the theater, however, we discover that we are meant to take the word apart and take it seriously. This is a musical — really, more of a musical drama — about a band of damaged war veterans who take a stand while competing in a national radio contest in 1945. The concept is more ambitious, darker and more sophisticated than its name invites theatergoers to enjoy. It is also more than a little shapeless and overly long.

Perhaps more important, the show is the first in which Andy Blankenbuehler, the Tony-winning choreographer of “Hamilton,” takes over the entire vision as director-choreographer.

The results, which intentionally jumble the dance focus in challenging ways, are visually and emotionally compelling. But for all that originality and a startling cast of virtuosos who play their own instruments like members of a genuine jazz-swing band, the show never overcomes the feeling that inside the heartfelt, meandering 2 1⁄2-hour evening, a 90-minute powerhouse is struggling to come out.

The musical, reportedly the first stage show certified by Got Your 6, a campaign supporting accuracy in military-themed art, is both too much and not quite enough for a satisfying whole. Richard Oberacker, making his Broadway debut, wrote the gorgeous jazz and new-old swing music and co-wrote the moody lyrics with Rob Taylor. But their book feels padded with jokes and plot diversions that drag down the expert stagecraft.

At the center is Corey Cott, febrile and wiry and full of restless chemistry as Donny, a singer-pianist who returns from horrible warfare with no jobs or prospects. Laura Osnes is the band’s singer Julia Trojan (cue the prophylactic jokes), the widow of his buddy and the love interest that, daringly if not entirely believably, takes a long time to develop.

Blankenbuehler uses dance more as atmosphere than showstoppers, with movement fragments and shards that create the haunted feel of ghosts and shadows. War memories share the stage (designed by David Korins) with scenes, both entertaining and traumatic, in which Donny puts the band together. These, along with the song “I Know a Guy,” feel cut from the genuine life of working musicians. That feels new.

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