Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe recently had a hit on their hands with The Motown ’60s Revue. Now the company is stretching back further in time to its musical roots with The Magnificent Music of the ’40s.
The show, originally titled The Magnificent Mills Brothers, does actually center exclusively on that African-American group, so don’t expect any songs other than theirs. But you may be surprised to discover just how many hits they had; as the songs unspool, you’ll find yourself remembering more of them than you may have thought.
As is usual with these WBTT revues, there’s not a great deal of dialogue or biographical information presented. While the brothers’ father, John Sr. (Nate Jacobs), does tell us a bit of the story of how the foursome started out singing in church and a barbershop quartet (eventually advancing to recording contracts and a performance before British royalty), the emphasis is all on the singing here.
That’s not a bad thing necessarily, because the songs range from sweet to swinging to sassy. The down side is, you never really get to know the brothers (Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Jr.) separately or offstage at all. In fact, with the exception of John Jr. (Jeffrey Akins), who died in the 1930s and was replaced by his father in the group, you may have trouble distinguishing one brother from another. That’s a mistake that can be easily rectified by a few simple words early on to help us with our IDs.
But the vocal harmonies of the performers are pleasant to hear, if not quite as polished as the originals. (After all, the Mills Brothers had years to perfect their style, which included in their heyday their trademark of producing all the instrumental accompaniments save for a guitar with their own voices). And we do learn enough about the quartet to realize that, in their own way, they were pioneers, starring on the first radio series hosted by African-Americans and signing one of the most lucrative and longstanding contracts for black musicians of their era.
There are not as many chances to really cut loose here as with the Motown show, but you may still find yourself swaying back and forth or tapping a foot to tunes like Mr. Sandman, Up A Lazy River, Paper Doll or Opus One. (If you don’t think you know that last one, you will when you hear it). You Always Hurt the One You Love, Glow Worm, Yellow Bird and about 18 other numbers round out the show, which lasts 90 minutes with intermission.
The Magnificent Music of the ’40s continues through April 4, with shows Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Art Center Sarasota. For tickets call 366-1505 or visit wbttroupe.org.