After a war ends, and soldier have returned home, what comes next? How will they adjust back into contemporary society, one that has inched forward without them? That’s a premise that has been explored at some length in different forms of arts and entertainment, and key to the central themes of the new show, Bandstand.
They are themes worth diving into to better understand what’s left of man after enduring unfathomable events and decisions overseas. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Bandstand tries to escort the audience back not to the bunkers but to the months after the war has ended when these men were labeled heroes despite not necessarily feeling all that heroic. Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, along with Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor (books and lyrics), try their best to tell this story through music and how it helps both heal and more often distract a band of six military vets from the atrocities they witnessed and the PTSD they endure. All of the lead actors sell their roles well, but ultimately the narrative — they’re preparing for a music competition where the winner gets to have their song appear on the big screen — doesn’t have the gravitas to hold up the weight of all these soldiers’ underlying issues.
What brings this group, and really the show overall, to a heightened level is the addition of Julia Trojan, played by Laura Osnes, who is dealing with grief of her own, the loss of her army husband, Michael. Julia finds some comfort in remembering Michael through his military buddy, Pfc. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), who also emerges as a potential new love interest for Julia. Under the circumstances, it can be difficult to watch these two grow closer to one another. You want to root for them each to overcome their pasts, though.
The play’s best numbers in that way center on the psychological burdens they carry, not on pushing past. This motif appears in other ways, too, with characters shadowed quite literally by people they left behind. You want the show to more fully embrace the seriousness and complexity it depicts, but that might wind up being too heavy a price for a more fun-loving Broadway audience to take in. As hard as it tries, this show can’t be everything it sets out to be.