“Lost in the 40’s”
Don’t Tell Mama – August 28, September 8, 10, 11, 13
With “Lost in the Forties,” Donald Wayne provided a highly personal look- and listen-back at the music consumed by 1940s Americans—a generation wounded and scarred by the Second World War. Early on in the show, which was directed by Spider Duncan Christopher, Wayne commented on the marked bipolarity of 1940s popular music. On one side were deeply emotional, wistful or downright sad songs—apt musical background for all the separation, yearning and loss of the era. On the other side were lighthearted and at times purely giddy tunes that offered momentary escape from fear and gloom.
Wayne sang a sizable sampling of songs (and fragments of songs) from both of those musical categories as he related the story of his own family during the decade. He shared the tale of his parents meeting and marrying, of their separation during the war, and of the bewilderment and despair that came when his military-officer father went missing in action in Europe.
Particular songs served as markers for important events in the family history—and much of this was effectively programmed. Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington’s “The Nearness of You,” for instance, was used to recall the first dance between Wayne’s father (who was of Spanish-Portuguese heritage) and his mother (a Southern belle); Wayne explained how his father translated the English lyrics into a Latin-lover’s romantic whisper during the dance. Wayne Junior sang a short passage from this improvised translation, and it was a thrilling moment. But it passed much too quickly—too quickly for me to know for certain whether the words sung were Spanish or Portuguese. Later, an amusing sequence highlighting his father’s marriage proposal featured Wayne singing excerpts from inappropriate songs playing on the radio during the momentous occasion, including “Mairzy Doats” (Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, Jerry Livingston) and “Three Little Fishies” (Saxie Dowell).
More comely voices than Wayne’s have sung the haunting ballads of the 1940s. But he struck an attitude that nicely suited much of the music from the era—a time when tears were wiped away quickly because, there was a war going on, you know. With an affect at moments reminiscent of actor Jimmy Stewart, Wayne sang in a pleasing but not over-polished baritone. His conversational, Average Joe approach to the lyrics lent immediacy to the strong emotions permeating the melodies of such fare as “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (Cole Porter) “Skylark” (Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael), and “As Time Goes By” (Herman Hupfeld).
At times, Wayne overdid things with the gestural illustrations he brought to the material. At the performance I saw, Wayne used a dismissive, “get out of here” flap of the hands, directed at the audience, some five or six times. For “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” (Irving Berlin), sung to mark the arrival of a telegram at the barracks showers, informing Wayne’s father that his son Donald had been born, Wayne did a lot of shtick with a hand towel. He snapped it at the audience, mimed drying himself down with it, and tossed it around his neck to suggest a stylish scarf. By the final chorus, I felt as if I were watching someone play a game of charades with teammates too dimwitted to guess the answer.
Wayne had solid support from pianist/musical director Doyle Newmyer, who provided some novel and appealing arrangements. I liked the elegant waltz-time embellishments given to “You’ll Never Know” (Harry Warren/Mack Gordon), which were meant to suggest the tinkling of a Limoges music box. And I thought the unusual military-march accompaniment for “Time After Time” (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne) was effective as well.
I saw “Lost in the Forties” on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which added emotional subtext that may have colored my positive response to Wayne’s show (proceeds from which went to Paralyzed Veterans of America). When Wayne sang Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” to commemorate his father’s disappearance in battle, the well of longing seemed fathomless.
The Wayne family’s story eventually had a happy ending, allowing the singer to segue into the upbeat “There’s a Great Day Coming Mañana” (E.Y. Harburg, Burton Lane). At this particular date’s performance, though, it was all too easy to remember that for a lot of other families, a satisfying mañana was not to be.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.