- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

The movie "Pearl Harbor" reminded audiences this spring not only of that devastating sneak attack but of joyful World War II-era music in scenes not involving falling warheads or maladroit romances.
"The Big Band Sound of WWII," a new PBS special debuting at 9 p.m. Friday (locally on WETA, Channel 26), takes that conceit and gives it a richly deserved full-hour treatment. Led by the local Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra, the concert captures the frisson generated when the buoyant swing music culture met a nation consumed with war.
Even those born long after swing music's epoch will feel a patriotic twinge when viewing this sentimental special. Older viewers' reaction likely will be more visceral, as the program captures the wartime feel with loving detail.
Red, white and blue bunting bedecks the dance hall that serves as the program's modest set. Guys and gals — the men in military attire, the women in their best period garb— swing dance as if it is the last day of shore leave.
Bandleader Felten's velvety vocals anchor his 30-piece jazz orchestra as it tears through 18 big-band numbers.
The special appears to be a tight-budget affair, which works both for and against it. A more massive set might have seemed unrealistic, given the program's attempt to simulate the kind of dance hall any GI might stumble upon back then.
The occasionally sweeping camera moves, meant to paint the scope of the dance hall, will make viewers feel as if they are being dragged around the floor by a hoofer with two left feet.
Mr. Felten, a thick-haired throwback, guides the hour with a firm but gentle hand, when he's not snapping his fingers to keep in time with the groove. His caressing of several classic songs, including a poignant "As Time Goes By," reveals his gentle, precise phrasing.
"Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week" is undeniable fun, a tone set by most of the broadcast.
Even Mr. Felten's between-song banter carries the nostalgic tone of a 1940s balladeer.
His "Accentuate the Positive" sounds rushed, though. The tighter pacing may be by design, but it hampers the otherwise streamlined number.
Mr. Felten is joined several times by Mary Cleere Haran, a chanteuse who brings old-school glamour to the proceedings. Miss Haran wraps her smoky pipes around several numbers, including "No Love, No Nothin'," and slows the pace to a romantic crawl. Later, when she turns her attention to "Sentimental Journey," she once more shines, although her makeup appears more garish. Her expressive eyes are defined to maddening detail.
The swing dancers crowding the hall won't amaze viewers. Oh, they're good, and nary a misstep is made, but their less-than-Broadway-level shuffling lends some verisimilitude to the offering.
The dancing, at once both intimate and pure, serves as the ideal complement to the music.
One nugget of reality deftly deleted from the special is any visual reference to the smoke, which undoubtedly clogged many a jitterbug joint. It's a politically correct sour note in an otherwise engaging hour.
Still, those who can recall this musical era won't be distracted by the lack of nicotine. They will be too busy snapping their fingers and humming along to care.

***
WHAT: "The Big Band Sound of WWII"
WHERE: WETA, Channel 26
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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