Jitterbug, Anyone?

Boys in flowered bathing suits faded by the sun. Polo shirts worn

ragged by too many punishments in the old Bendix. The quiet of a beach

penetrated by the Andrews Sisters murdering “Hold Tight.” Sugar rations.

Fels-Naptha soap. A local movie house that shows Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth

in You’ll Never Get Rich . “Backstage

Wife,” the story of Larry and Mary Noble and what it means to be the wife of a

Broadway star, coming from the radio in Mama’s room while she does the ironing.

Duz commercials tinkling from the Sylvania on hot sunny afternoons and hot

trumpet music wailing out at night when there’s nothing to do.

This is the stuff of nostalgia, the memories of a gentler time

immortalized in Herman Raucher’s popular novel Summer of ’42 , which hit the best-seller lists in the 1960’s and

landed on the big screen in 1971 in a tremendously successful movie directed by

Robert Mulligan. Only a few of the memories shine through in the new Off

Broadway musical adaptation of Summer of

’42 , a show that almost chokes on its own sweetness, but in the aftermath

of 9/11 audiences are embracing it madly. Brace yourself for a Norman Rockwell

collage.

In its own restricted way and with its own special values about

love and war and coming of age, a touching memory piece emerges about three

high-school chums vacationing in a summer community off the coast of Maine, and

the sexual awakening one boy experiences with a lonely war widow that shapes

his life. Nothing much happens, yet a spirited cast under the assured direction

of Gabriel ( The Wild Party ) Barre

shows such a feeling for the past and what it was like to be young and naïve

during the war that the musical surges with its own inner rhythm. It unravels

like a bolt of satin, in simple, precise, thoughtful, measured scenes, each

following the other in a liquid tempo, lazy as summer, uncomplicated as life in

an easier decade, each scene relating to the truth it exposes. It reminded me

of my own youth, standing in front of a hick-town post office, looking at the

Hitler posters and wondering where life would take me, whistling at the old

ladies of 22 in their ironed skirts with phony brio and the fear that they

might come over and slap my face. They were inaccessible and they always looked

like Teresa Wright in The Best Years of

Our Lives .

The youngsters in Summer of

’42 are natural and bright and unpretentious as potato bread, especially a

promising newcomer named Ryan Driscoll, who plays Hermie, the centerpiece of

the show who grows in one summer from awkwardness and uncertainty to quiet

maturity, experiencing at a young, carefree age the deep stirrings of manhood

and the feelings of responsibility, caring and the capacity to love that go

with it. The action centers on the exploits of three nerds called the Terrible

Trio at a time when everything was rationed except hormones. But while his pals

Oscy (Brett Tabisel) and Benjie (Jason Marcus) devote their obnoxious lusts to

pursuing the local beach bunnies, Hermie comes unhinged by his infatuation with

Dorothy, a pretty newlywed whose husband is on his way to the South Pacific.

The friendship that develops between the woman and the boy turns

to mutual grief when Dorothy’s soldier husband is killed in action and she

turns, in a moment of longing and need, to the arms of the gentle but

bewildered Hermie. Compassion leads to sex, and it is clear that Hermie’s

perception of life will never be the same. Unlike the movie, which concentrated

on the sex act itself, the musical is discreet as a church supper. But young

Mr. Driscoll and Kate Jennings Grant, as the soldier’s wife who turns the

adolescent into a man-a role that made a star of Jennifer O’Neill back in

1971-handle the understated emotions that lead to an offstage consummation with

delicacy and a realism that makes the audience gasp.

The book by Hunter Foster leaves out a lot of the pungent period

detail so nicely captured in Herman Raucher’s novel and screenplay and with the

exception of one soaring ballad called “Little Did I Dream,” the music and

lyrics by David Kirshenbaum are merely pleasant and instantly forgettable, like

the fizz in a bottle of 7-Up. The sets by James Youmans, however, deserve

special praise: sand dunes, driftwood, early-morning sunrises and late-night

shooting stars, a blinking lighthouse in the distance punctuated by the sound

of ocean waves. The look of the piece, and the sincerity of a young cast that

can sing and act with charm and grace, make it a most agreeable evening indeed.

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos,” meaning “return

home.” Life is like that. The older we get, the more we think about childhood

and the times, places and events of youth that started it all. Memory contains

both then and now, when we lose that, we lose ourselves as well. Summer of ’42 stirs delicate memories

that made me homesick to get it all back again. Anyone for the jitterbug?

Janice Mars, The Entertainer

Unlike in film and theater, in American popular music-like in

painting and literature-there is no such thing as nostalgia because real art

becomes archival. Once a singer or a songwriter is committed to vinyl, the work

cannot be duplicated. It’s always a thrill to discover a true artist in the

field. And it’s a special privilege to share the very rarefied artistry of a

woman named Janice Mars with others. She’s legendary, an appendage of the Mabel

Mercer school who made her mark half a century ago and retired to prune her

nasturtiums, leaving an aging generation of sophisticated New Yorkers with fond

memories of her brief but important impact. Now her only recorded album is

available for the first time on a crisp new CD.

Back in the 1950’s, when James Dean was wearing his first

rebellious red windbreaker and I was dancing romantically to “Blue Velvet” at

high-school sock hops, New Yorkers who Knew Things were piling into a

ridiculously tiny and notoriously overcrowded little watering hole called the

Baq Room, located behind a bar at 1362 Sixth Avenue. Armed with rye,

Old-Fashioneds and vodka stingers, Broadway stars and struggling playwrights

and witty creators of sketch revues like New

Faces rubbed elbows in the dark until the curtains parted and a woman in a

simple black sheath with a Louise Brooks bob and a mouth as wide as a bagel

stepped onto a stage the size of a lobby poster to shattering applause. Her

name was Janice Mars.

She was an actress from the

Actors’ Studio who played small roles in plays and films and developed a

rabid following among lovers of show tunes. Her Tony pals were so entranced by her singing that Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams and Maureen

Stapleton loaned her $1,900 to open a small, smoke-filled closet to display her

musical wares. Mr. Brando was a fixture, but on any given night back in the

late 50’s you might find among her devotees

the likes of Jackie Gleason, Susan Strasberg, Siobhan McKenna, Richard

Burton, Shirley Booth, Jose Ferrer, Adolph Green, Tallulah Bankhead, Cole

Porter, Peggy Lee, Dave Garroway, Phil Silvers and Imogene Coca. (The liner

notes of her new CD consist of accolades written by Kim Stanley, Eric Portman,

Judy Holliday, Tennessee Williams and, of course, Mr. Brando.) Then, as quickly

as she burst across the inky midnight sky of Manhattan, she disappeared like

Banquo’s ghost. Before her final adieu, she recorded one album. It was never

released.

Years ago, Jean Simmons gave me a scratched acetate of that LP

that was presented to her by Mr. Brando when they were filming Guys and Dolls . He kept the original

master in a drawer with his old kimonos. It was a cherished collector’s item,

but in such fragile condition I was afraid my phonograph needle might perform

some permanent, irreversible damage. I hadn’t played it for years, but in chic

circles people still fascinated me with their reminiscences of this mercurial

singer with the odd voice that seemed to define the feverish and quixotic New

York landscape at a time when no night on the town was complete without a

nightcap at the Baq Room. Cut to 2002, and the re-emergence of Janice Mars.

Last year, Casey McCabe, a second cousin of the elusive

entertainer who lives in San Rafael, Calif., tracked down the masters and found

them in Mr. Brando’s study where he had been storing them safely for 30 years,

per the singer’s request. The result is Introducing

Janice Mars , a sparkling new CD that sounds like it was recorded a week

ago. Here for a new generation of ears is this unique stylist’s interpretations

of 11 meticulously selected numbers from her long-ago nightclub act,

beautifully arranged by Don Evans and recorded in 1960. In a voice self-described

as “fractured mezzo,” she illuminates priceless renditions of classics by

Harold Arlen, Alec Wilder, John LaTouche, Duke Ellington, E. Y. Harburg, Johnny

Mercer, Sammy Fain, Frank Loesser and others, including obscure works from such

legendary Broadway flops as Beggar’s

Holiday, Flahooley and the Phyllis

McGinley–Baldwin Bergersen musical revue Small Wonder . Highlights include a wistful reading of “Lilac Wine,”

a buoyant “Nobody Told Me” and a heartbreaking “When the World Was Young” that

takes on the vocal trajectory of a three-act play. If Sarah Bernhardt could

sing, she would have been Janice Mars.

Serious lovers of show music and collectors of historic Broadway

and cabaret footnotes can now experience what the excitement was all about back

in the late 1950’s. Copies are in stock on the Internet. I don’t know what Ms.

Mars, 78, is doing with all of her mortgaged fame and talent, but Mr. McCabe is

selling copies of Introducing Janice Mars

from his home for $12.95 a copy, plus $2.95 for shipping and handling. You can

e-mail him at caseymcc@pacbell.net. Jitterbug, Anyone?