When people think back to the end of World War II and the years that followed, it is often viewed through rose-colored glasses — joyous scenes of celebrations as soldiers returned from war followed by years of prosperity and a baby boom that forever changed the world.
But not all soldiers returned home and easily slipped back into their lives. Many struggled to find their place back at work and even with their families after years away. And while the concept of PTSD wasn’t on anyone’s radar yet, many suffered it all the same.
Those themes are at the heart of the musical Bandstand which visits the area a couple of times this month.
Bluffton Actor on tour
Bandstand tells the story of a group of such veterans who, finding it difficult to fit in upon their return, formed a band to compete in a national patriotic radio contest in New York.
When Bandstand comes to nearby stages, one of the actors featured is Bluffton native Taylor Okey.
Okey may be touring the country now, but his career began in Wells County when he was only 10.
“When I was growing up, we had the Wells Community Theatre,” Okey said in a recent phone interview with Whatzup. “I started when I was in fourth grade and continued right on until high school. I was really active in it. They had two shows a year, and one year I was in The Sound of Music playing one of the Von Trapp kids. But I was in my first show when I was 10, and it really sparked an interest. “
When it came time for college, however, he thought it was time to put his dreams of a future in theater aside and earned a degree in education at Elmhurst College near Chicago.
“I got my first ‘big kid’ job and was teaching,” he said. “I had done a couple plays here and there, and I was still singing. It just wasn’t a priority. But I missed it, and on a whim I tried out for a couple of professional productions in Chicago.”
Okey realized that he wanted to take a shot at a career in theater after all, and four years into his teaching career, he pulled up stakes and earned a Master’s in Fine Arts at Boston Conservatory.
Following graduation, he moved to New York in search of work. Nine months later he was cast in Bandstand.
Everything comes together
If that sounds too good to be true, Okey would agree with you.
“It was as if once I put all my eggs in one basket and just let it go, it all fell into place,” Okey said. “I didn’t audition until the end of July. My agent told me about it, and I got all the materials I needed to do two scenes and one song. I filmed it and then a couple days later was asked to film a couple more scenes. And I got the call that I was cast. It all happened in less than a week, and that never happens. I’ve had times that I’ve auditioned and gone back and forth for six or seven weeks and haven’t gotten the role. When I heard I got it, I just thought ‘No way. This must be a mistake.’”
Although Okey had not seen Bandstand during its Broadway run, a friend of his was in the cast and helped him get up to speed. He learned the show and its songs, and rehearsals began in September. He began looking into that period in history, and he and his castmates have had several conversations about the themes in the show.
“As a cast we’ve really latched on to what this show is about,” Okey said. “It’s a story that no one ever really talked about. A big part of it was that during that time, men really didn’t talk about things like that, didn’t share their feelings. World War II vets coming home had a hard time finding a sense of normalcy again, and the story is as raw as it can be.
“I think that whole time in our history has been so romanticized that now it’s hard to look back and think things weren’t easy for those men.”
Okey plays Oliver, the man who runs the nightclub where the band plays. He also understudies for Donny, the show’s lead.
This is not the first time Okey has understudied a major role, but this time he’s far more comfortable with it than he was in the past.
“This is my second or third time understudying someone, and the times in the past were terrifying,” he said. “But once you do it, you learn how to prepare yourself. I’ve learned the lines, I’ve learned the music. I haven’t had to step in yet, and Zack [Zaromatidis] is just crushing it in the role.”
Happy in the midwest
Okey is happy to be playing several shows close to home, visiting Wabash, Van Wert, South Bend, and Muncie in the coming weeks.
His family and friends are looking forward to it, too. Wells County’s Creative Arts Center has chartered a bus to carry his legions of fans to shows. It’s all a part of the support he received from his parents who thought their kid from Bluffton, Indiana, could make it on the stage.
“When I told them, they could not have been more supportive. They said, ‘There is nothing holding you back. You’re in your 20s, you’re not married, you don’t have kids, this is your time.”
Bandstand stays on the road until June with a possibility of extending the run. But Okey knows that as suddenly as this opportunity fell into his lap, it’ll one day be over, and he’ll have to find a new job. But he’s philosophical about it and ready to accept the challenge.
“It’s definitely a different mindset,” he said. “I grew up in Indiana, but since then I’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and New York. I’m kind of nomadic, and I don’t have a lot of things because I move so often.
“Sometimes the adult part of my brain freaks out and says, ‘What are you going to do in July?’ But if you had told me a few months ago that this is where I’d be, I’d have thought you were joking. I think it teaches you to live in the moment, to enjoy what’s happening now.”
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