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October 20, 2017

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Can a musical from Las Vegas make it in New York? Richard Oberacker is finding out with ‘Bandstand’


Musical director Richard Oberacker.

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Musical director Richard Oberacker oversees the musicians in 10 performances a week. His studio is one of three the performers use in the production.

Maybe the most apt way to describe Richard Oberacker’s emotions at the moment are “mitigated excitement.”

“We are being very careful about how we position this,” says Oberacker, music director for Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” at MGM Grand. “You never know what’s going to happen. You have to be realistic … but we think we have something extraordinary.”

That special slice of theater is the new musical “Bandstand: A Musical,” co-created by Oberacker and his lyrics-writing partner Robert Taylor, a lyricist and violinist who performed for years in “Disney’s The Lion King.”

The two also collaborated on regional productions “Ace” and “The Sandman: A Little Nightmare Musical.” Their latest effort centers on a group of servicemen from Cleveland who enter a music contest sponsored by a local radio station in the months after the end of World War II.

The grand prize is a spot in a movie produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in New York. The kids win their statewide competition — and that is no spoiler, as it even happens early in the story — to advance to the national finals in New York. But the regional triumph becomes complicated as the band finds out that it needs to pay its way to New York.

The story follows that arc as tension grips the group in its effort to fulfill this dream of winning a spot in a motion picture.

“We just want to write what we call a bullet-train plot, something along the lines of ‘Hairspray,’ where it was just a feel-good, fun, up-and-easy, straightforward story,” Oberacker says. “ 'Ace’ and ‘The Sandman’ were very complicated and unique sorts of work, and we wanted something more direct. So we mapped out the plot of a kid from the war who just wants to put a band together to win a radio contest, then goes to New York and tries to win that contest.”

This is the blueprint for “Bandstand,” which Oberacker has delivered in Las Vegas in piecemeal fashion for the past 18 months or so. His next step is across the country, as the “Bandstand” cast and he began rehearsals in New York this week. The musical, in full force, will be performed three times from Sept. 3-4 for potential investors in a new 112-seat theater at Lincoln Center designed to showcase emerging projects.

But the public, as it is defined as ticket-buying theatergoers, is not the target audience.

“This is to gauge the show’s viability commercially,” Oberacker says. “At the end of the day, if you are talking about making it to Broadway, you are talking about making money. This is a business, and that is the question, not whether this is a great piece of work that will change the world. That is the cold, hard truth.”

Representatives from such theater operators as the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters are expected to be in the audience for “Bandstand.”

“We need to deliver an astounding three performances,” says Oberacker, who collaborated with Taylor on a wall-to-wall soundtrack of 20 original songs. “The next step is out of my hands entirely.”

Oberacker notes that some of the best Broadway-caliber talent is fueling “Bandstand,” including Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler as the director. But the show also has some Las Vegas connections, as trumpet player Joey Pero has been snapped up from his gig with his own band to play one of the leads in the show. And, chosen as the band’s drummer, is former “Jersey Boys” at Paris cast member Rob Marnell.

“Joey and Rob actually ran into each other on the casting call in New York, in July,” Oberacker says, laughing. “It was a crazy coincidence. What a wonderful morning that was.”

While working on the show in Las Vegas, Oberacker led performances of songs from the musical at Composers Showcase at the Smith Center. Those tunes were sung by such Las Vegas favorites as Niki Scalera, late of “Tarzan” on Broadway (she also sings the “I Feel Pretty” jingle in Pampers commercials); Travis Cloer from “Jersey Boys”; Jordan Bondurant of “Mamma Mia!” (weeks before that show closed at the Trop last Sunday); and Savannah Smith from BBR and “Vegas! The Show.”

Those performances were customarily of Oberacker’s high standards, as audiences at the Showcase have come to expect over the past few years. A full reading of the musical was performed at Art Square Theater in July 2013.

“That’s when we thought we were onto something special,” Oberacker says. “You have to be realistic, but we have done everything we can to make this a hit.”

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