You come into the Bernard Jacobs Theatre expecting a nostalgic look back at the late Swing/Big Band era in the euphoria of America’s victory in World War II, before the Cold War set in. Instead, “Bandstand” serves up a cautionary tale about the cost of war on returning veterans, scarred by the horrors they have seen and put off by the changes in the world they left behind.
Five ex-soldiers and a war widow form a band to compete in a nationwide contest. Bit by bit, their stories come out — not in songs but in snippets of dialog. One can’t drink enough whiskey to drown the horrors of Dachau. Another lives with traumatic brain injury and can’t remember much, except how to play the drums. The band leader is wracked with guilt over the death of his best buddy, whose widow becomes the band’s singer.
The emotion of the story got the audience over a number of production flaws. The singers were poorly miked, so words and lyrics were muddy, even in the front rows. None of the songs were memorable, despite several being effectively emotional. The music was more like 2017 Broadway than 1947 Big Band. And while the story of the cost of war on soldiers who survive it is timeless, the post-World War II setting doesn’t fit our experience with the Greatest Generation. Like my dad, most of them returned eagerly to civilian life and silently took their war memories to their graves.
On the plus side, the choreography and dancing were superb, although more 1950s Bobby Socks than 1940s jitterbug. The ex-soldier-musicians performed live on stage, and man, can they wail and jive.
“Bandstand” feels like a work in progress, something you would see at a top regional theatre. Despite the standing ovation at the end, it’s not really ready for Broadway.