Through March 18
1201 North Royal Street
$45-$50, $25 students
Before she was Josephine Baker, the toast of Jazz Age Paris wowing audiences at the Follies Bergère, she was Josie McDonald, a skinny kid doing the chicken dance for spare change in front of the Piggly Wiggly back in St. Louis. It’s this metamorphosis from girl to ravishing young star that’s portrayed in the musical “Josephine Tonight,” currently premiering at MetroStage.
Broadway vets Sherman Yellen (book and lyrics) and the late Wally Harper (music) frame Baker’s bio as a Cinderella story. (Lyrics mention the would-be princess and her pink silk ball gowns more than once.) And though young Josephine derives support from her no-nonsense washerwoman mother, besotted young husband, and assorted showbiz folks, there is definitely no fairy godmother in this tale. As presented here, the magic that transforms our heroine from Josie to Josephine comes from within. She’s her own creation.
It’s tough to cast the role of a legendary figure like Baker, whom most people know as the almost naked dancer portrayed in the iconic posters from “Le Revue Nègre” (the 1925 Parisian show that shot her to stardom). Happily, Zurin Villanueva portrays the young Baker with a natural confidence and effervescent energy that feels just right. She looks the part too: Tall and lithe with an expressive beauty.
Villanueva’s Josephine subtly matures during the show (aging from 14 to early 20s). Along with Josephine, we learn that she’s too big for segregated Post World War I America. We watch approvingly as she nonchalantly trades her increasingly boring husband for a French lover and alludes to her sexual experiences with women. It’s a juicy part and Villanueva has fun with it.
The four remaining top-notch cast members definitely earn their paychecks playing multiple roles (mostly key figures in Josephine’s early life to which the show is fairly faithful). Talented triple threat James T. Lane is terrific as Josephine’s husband Eddie Baker and as her French lover Paul. James Alexander and Debra Walton are delightfully versatile as corny vaudevillians, racist whites and other parts.
At a recent matinee, Roz White stepped in for an absent Aisha De Haas as Josephine’s wry mother Carrie and her boozy, blues-singing mentor Big Bertha Smith — both great roles. White’s take on “Bertha’s Blues,” a song that segues from blues to gospel was among the show’s highlights. With arrangements and orchestrations by musical director David Alan Bun, the lively score is packed (probably too much) with ragtime, blues and Broadway-style tunes.
“Josephine Tonight” is directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines (openly gay) who first gained fame long ago tap dancing with his late brother Gregory. He successfully mines the backstory for humor and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. His choreography — including Baker’s famous jungle dance — harks back to the era. Reggie Ray’s costumes are wonderfully evocative of the time as well, but one can’t help but wonder what he might have done with a bigger budget. Scenery/projection designer Klyph Stanford supplies a discreet art deco proscenium arch. Underneath hangs a translucent scrim on which he projects images pertinent to Baker’s life: a laundry line, the Cotton Club sign, the Eiffel Tower. Behind the scrim, the hot five-piece band can be seen playing.
The show ends just when Josephine achieves celebrity. We see her dance in the iconic skimpy banana skirt and walk the stage as a sequined and plumed main attraction. Baker went on to scale more performance peaks, work undercover for the French Resistance during World War II, and assemble a rainbow family of adopted children. And though she returned to the U.S. for work until her death in 1975, she was a citizen of France and made her home there. But those are details for another musical.