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Broadway Musical Reviews—“Bandstand” and “Anastasia”

Book & lyrics by Robert Taylor & Richard Oberacher; music by Richard Oberacher
Directed & choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Opened April 26, 2017
Book by Terrence McNally; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Opened April 24, 2017
Laura Osnes in Bandstand (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
I saw Bandstand in 2015 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse as The Bandstand. Losing its definite article isn’t the only change for Broadway, as this sentimental but affecting musical about a group of bebop-playing WWII vets from Cleveland who enter a songwriting contest that takes them to Manhattan has dropped some fat and added more inventive movement courtesy of director (and Tony-winning Hamilton choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler.
But its ace in the hole remains Laura Osnes, who plays Julia, widow of a soldier killed in the war who starts singing with the band after Donnie Nowitski—her husband’s closest friend in the army who was in the foxhole when he was killed—checks in on her as he promised he would.
Osnes is the emotional center of a show that also generously allows each of the bandsmen—scarred by the war in his own way—to work out his demons by playing the music he loves. And Blankenbuehler has ingeniously visualized those ghosts and the weight on each vet’s shoulders with astonishingly effective choreographed movements.
Richard Oberacher’s toe-tappingly swing-inflected music at times digs into a well of melody and emotion, notably for the mournful but exhilarating climax, “Welcome Home,” which Osnes knocks out of the park with her impassioned, nakedly soul-baring vocal performance.
Corey Cott is a likable piano-playing Donnie, Beth Leavel a sturdy presence as Julia’s mom (still a thankless role, unfortunately) and the actors playing the band members—Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, Nate Hopkins, Geoff Packard and Joey Peroa, all playing their own instruments—give as good as they get as dramatic and musical foils.
But it’s up to Osnes—backed by fierce instrumental backing by the onstage sextet—to bring Bandstand home by putting us through an emotional wringer for a few glorious moments.
Christy Altomare in Anastasia (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Anastasia is the latest critic-proof Broadway musical. I don’t know how long it will run, but the legions of satisfied youngsters in the audience—how many parents can afford to pay Broadway prices to bring their kids to see it?—demonstrate that it’s being done right. At least for them.
Based on two movies—the 1956 drama for which Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar and the 1997 animated movie with Meg Ryan, of all people, voicing the title character—the musical is a hodgepodge that never decides on a direct course but instead meanders, hoping to keep both kids and parents happy. Six songs (including the Act I climax, “Journey to the Past”) are from the 1997 version, and the rest are new, undistinguished ones from the same team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
Terrence McNally’s rambling book precariously balances outright fantasy (Anastasia survived the Russian royal family’s 1917 slaughter by the Bolsheviks) and historical drama (Gleb, a Bolshevik apparatchik, tracks down Anya, a girl who purports to be Anastasia, and is caught between his duty and his attraction to her).
Despite the silliness, director Darko Tresnjak’s staging is filled with handsome trappings: dreamy ballet choreographed by Peggy Hickey, enticing costumes by Linda Cho, agreeable sets by Alexander Dodge and, best of all, consistently imaginative projections by Aaron Rhyne which make liberal use of HD photography to show off two of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg/Leningrad and Paris, where the action is set. Too bad the show is longer than it needs to be: at least 20 minutes could be cut, like the lame attempts at humor, endless ballroom scenes, and appearances by the ghosts of the dead Czar’s family to haunt our heroine’s dreams.
As Anya, supple-voiced Christy Altomare credibly transforms from street-sweeper with amnesia to elegant princess. Derek Klena’s Dmitry, who falls for Anya, is appealingly goofy, and John Bolton’s Vlad—Dmitry’s friend—gets the most out of his comic moments. As Gleb, Ramin Karimloo looks uncertain but compensates with strong singing, and Mary Beth Peil’s regal Dowager Empress doesn’t condescend to her part or the material.
Overlong, not tuneful enough, too derivative: Anastasia is all that and more. But for those who just want a pretty package, it will do nicely.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street

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