Okay so it sounds like this is a really sad and unenjoyable show, but it’s not. The severity of what they’re dealing with helps connect the audience to the characters really quickly, and from there we are totally with them on the journey as they find something worth living for. And the music is rollicking and fun and really helps lift everyone’s spirits and provide a sense of joy and hope for the characters. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the swing music considering the last time I listened to it was begrudgingly at school dances in the ‘90s when it was somehow popular at that sort of thing. I mean it’s not wise to compare Broadway musicians to that f-ing horrendous “Zoot Suit Riot” song but still. I’m super impressed by composers Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor considering I never heard of them and don’t know their previous work.
Right at the start of the show, we are somewhere in the Pacific Ocean with Corey Cott and a group of soldiers in trenches, just when some really bad things are about to happen (we know from lights flashing and then darkness). In another section of the stage, Laura Osnes is at home being a homemaker (we know because she’s wearing an apron) when a man in uniform rings her doorbell to bring her some awful news, and we deduce that her husband was just killed in that attack when she opens the door, sees who it is, and crumples to the ground sobbing. So all of this is happening with just the orchestra playing, no words or anything, and despite being maybe 30 seconds in total it’s so well done that you will 100% cry. Osnes is a TRAYSURE.
Then the war is over and Corey Cott, as Donny Novitski, made it back home to Cleveland. As the ensemble sings about getting back to normal, we see that Donny clearly is too haunted by his experience to know what normal is. He hears about a radio competition looking for the next big swing band, and he thinks it would sure be swell if the winners were a group of just-returned veterans. He sets about finding amazing musicians who have suitably served enough so that they are all broken (maybe not intentional). Meeting the 6 band members is so much fun. Despite not having tons of lines each, they are all given enough time and room to develop individual characters and really make you understand who they are and what they’re going through. Brandon J. Ellis, as big fun Irishman Davy on bass, is the funniest one, making ridiculous jokes and providing some much needed comic relief, although he’s clearly using humor to mask his pain like he does with alcohol. Most of his jokes were new to me, but I loved when the audience roared at one I knew: “A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel on his pants. The bartender says ‘hey, you’ve got a steering wheel on your pants.’ ‘Arghh’, the pirate says, ‘and it’s driving me nuts.’” Oh my god it’s so dumb I love it. Davy is full of jokes like this throughout the show, which is much appreciated. At one point, Davy tells the others guys, “I’ve survived mustard gas and pepper spray. I’m really a seasoned vet.” Grooooaaaan/love it.
Another standout of the band was Joe Carroll as Johnny on drums. His short-term memory and ability to socialize normally is shot because he suffered serious brain damage, as he tells you over and over, when his jeep flipped three times during an attack. His story is heartbreaking, but he uses humor well to get through it, and seems so good-hearted that you just want to give him a hug. At one particularly moving moment, he admits that despite his brain damage, he’s the lucky one of the group because he has fewer memories disturbing his mind all day. And the man providing most of my agita was Geoff Packard as Wayne on trombone, who had the most trouble reacclimating and pretending that normal life was normal at all. Part of his morning ritual was cleaning his gun in the bathroom, and I was 100% sure that meant he was going to kill himself by the time the show was over, especially since he seemed to be the most unable to return to everyday life. Thank god it was the one time when Chekhov’s gun was wrong, because his struggle to get to a point where life was bearable, thanks to this group, was one of the most emotional. Alex Bender as Nick on trumpet and James Nathan Hopkins as Jimmy on sax round out the really impressive group of musicians, and although we get a lot of expected conflict between the troubled men, watching them struggle through their issues and try to create great music together was wonderful. And in case you think it’s a total feel good story where music solves all their troubles and they end the show super happy and smiley, that’s not the case at all. It just helps them get out of bed, one day at a time. The fight is shown as constant, not one that you can win in one battle but one that you fight on a continuous basis.
By now you’re probably like um where is Laura Osnes in all this besides reigning over everyone like the queen she is? Laura plays Julia Trojan, a name choice I haven’t yet decided how I feel about because it offers a few funny bits but they’re ultimately unnecessary. Actually it does lead to a stellar display of Laura’s acting in one conversation about it so maybe I’m for it, although the same conversation could have happened with any odd name. Anyway. Donny, as we saw in the opening, was with Julia’s husband when he died. It turns out they had become best friends, and her husband made Donny promise to look after Julia if he died. Later in the show, more comes out about her husband and his death that I could not have seen coming, and through my horror I was more and more impressed at how much this show kept surprising me without sacrificing substance or form. Donny sees Julia sing in church and is blown away like we all are because she can sang, and he asks Julia to sing with him in the band. I’ve seen Corey and Laura before, but their vocals in this show are astounding. You’ve never heard Laura, usually very angelic and sweet-voiced, belt as insanely as she does here, and Corey’s vocal strength constantly wows too. And he’s playing the piano the entire show, which is so impressive. (Or at the very least he’s really convincingly pretending to play the piano.)
In the first act, the show blends the more serious moments with the band’s performances around town as it tries to build up its repertoire and name. These gigs are upbeat and tons of fun, in large part due to the eye-popping choreography. This is when Andy Blankenbuehler, director and choreographer who won the Tony for choreographing “Hamilton” (and “In the Heights”), gets to shine with his crazy (and I mean CAH RAZY) lifts and throws and super frenetic and energetic dancing in the ensemble. Morgan Marcell (who was also in “Hamilton”) fully distracted me from the band’s performing and Laura’s singing during these scenes as she was like doing figure skating spins and throws but like not on ice. I am in awe. Remember the amazing spin Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough did on “Grease: Live!” during the Hand Jive (should play that exact moment)? The dancing in these gig scenes was like that but more intense and for the entire time. dammmmn. I don’t like spoiling but here is one little sneak peak.
Another thing that helps lift the spirits from super depression is the performance of Beth Leavel as Julia’s mother, who now lives with her widowed daughter. Beth Leavel is pretty big deal in musical theatre, so at first I was kind of like “ughhh we’re at the point where Beth Leavel is getting jobs as the ingénue’s mother onstage for like five minutes?” But, as I should have expected, Beth turns her small-ish role into a hilarious at times, lovely at other times portrayal and really makes her time onstage meaningful. Although she does get a touching, beautiful song called “Everything Happens”, about how not everything happens for a reason, but it just happens and we have to get through it somehow, my favorite moment of hers is when she makes dinner for their guest Donny. Donny and Julia are talking about her late husband and looking at pictures from the war, and Beth comes in silently with a plate of deviled eggs so red that I was struck and distracted by the color from my balcony seat. I just thought oh that’s a weird move by the prop department. But then Julia and Donny stop talking, look to the eggs and then to Beth and she says, “The lid came off the paprika.” Her delivery was so deadpan and amazing that the audience actually broke into applause. So funny.
Despite being a relatively long show (the first act alone is an hour and a half), it felt shorter than most because of how engaging everything was. We’re there every step of the way as the band tries to make it, and more importantly as the guys try to stay in control of their mental states enough to get through a performance. It’s brilliant to see them decide to stop pretending like everything is fine, and that if they are going to sell themselves as a band of vets then they should be singing about real issues vets face. The band’s big song in the radio competition, “Love Will Come and Find Me Again”, is flipping amazing and I cannot wait to get the cast album oh my god they better make a cast album. The melody and the lyrics aren’t anything novel, but the song is perfectly catchy and solid and the performance is so exhilarating and gorgeous that you can’t believe any other competitors came close. And their big climactic performance of their very risky song “Welcome Home” is like if anxiety were set to music, kind of hard to listen to but completely on purpose, and so riveting that you’re scared to blink or breathe lest it affect the magic being created. And also you can’t breathe because if you do the breath will catch in your throat and you will sob.
So the music is so much fun and often incredibly moving, the dancing is awesome, the book is more sophisticated and smarter than most, and the performances are wonderful across the board. The only thing holding this show back is the direction, I’m sorry to say. I think if a more seasoned director was at the helm instead of Andy, this show would be getting a lot more acclaim and would be near infallible. As it is, Andy is a much better choreographer than director. What works with his choreography in ensemble numbers is that it’s busy and frenzied and always interesting to watch. That kind of attitude towards movement, however, has serious limitations for a director. It doesn’t always work when not about multiple people dancing. There’s often too much going on onstage to focus on the right thing. But most bothersome is that Andy’s signature kinds of movement often get in his way, in places where a different director would have made changes. Like in Donny’s introductory song, once he really breaks into it and sings directly to the audience, he is mirroring what I consider Andy’s signature move – standing with his legs tightly pressed together with bent knees swinging left and right, a little hunched in the back. I feel like that’s how Andy himself is always moving, feet together and planted and knees swinging and curvy and hunched over, like that’s his thing, but it doesn’t work at all to have Donny moving like that while he sings about how hard it is to be back to his regular life. It was super distracting because I remember thinking “Oh that looks like Andy! It’s like he is just imitating Andy,” and it was not doing the character justice. I was taken out of the moment. And it’s not just me being familiar with Andy’s particular style, because my sister-in-law even commented that some of the movement didn’t make sense. If they had someone keeping Andy from seeping into every scene, it would be better. I fully believe a stronger director would have gotten this show a Best New Musical Tony nomination.
Nevertheless, the show still shines in most regards and I really can’t get over how impressed I was with it. Even expected tropes like the inevitable budding romance between our two leads as they help each other work through their shared grief is done in a way that keeps it from being predictable. First of all, Laura and Corey’s chemistry is off the charts. It really was remarkable, so strong that when I remembered Laura is married in real life I was like aw. Second of all, it’s not a clear-cut romance in the least. Their big song together, once they’ve grown closer and everyone else knows they have feelings for each other, is not a love song. Instead it’s them admitting that if they were in a movie, this would be the point where they would get together and live happily ever after, but because of who they are and what they’ve gone through, nothing can happen between them. It was so well done and made their story more realistic and emotional.
This is a pretty stellar Broadway season and, even with a lot of good work happening, this ranks up there as one of my top shows of the year. I know, I can’t believe it either. But aside from Act II getting a little loose in the cage, it’s an endlessly enjoyable, thought-provoking, moving, harrowing, and ultimately uplifting show that hits all the marks necessary to make you cry, laugh, and smile a lot. A lot a lot. Now that “Dear Evan Hansen” is sold out for probably as long as the earth has left, this is the show I’m most hoping succeeds. Go buy tickets, everyone, so it doesn’t close because I kind of want to see it again and I can’t go back to NYC until the fall!
Toilets are in the basement, and only in the basement! Luckily there is only one mezzanine level, but still, that means at intermish you are running down two flights of stairs. It moves okay though.
Rush tickets ($30) are generally easy to get. No one is camping out at 4am like for other shows. After those sell out, the box office offers ‘secondary rush’ at $49. These seats actually have a better view than the first wave of rush, so it’s worth the extra money to wait.