The key to Josephine Baker’s success was simple: she was unique, magnetic, and unlike anything that audiences had ever experienced before. While her talents were really rather standard it was her personality that was incomparable and that’s what made her a star – one whose light is still felt almost 40 years after her death.
The trick, then, to portraying someone like Baker is to capture that spark, that “it”, that je ne sais quoi. Cheryl Howard, who wrote and performs in the solo show The Sensational Josephine Baker, is undoubtedly talented as she shines brilliantly from stage – a triple threat of dancer, singer and actress – but her immense talent is still not enough to work the magic needed to weave a story that will do justice to Ms. Baker.
The Sensational Josephine Baker highlights the life of the famed, groundbreaking, exotic young woman who took Paris by storm simply by being herself. The show begins with an aging, frightened, down-on-her luck Baker shrieking in despair at the thought of losing her home which houses not just herself but her many (adopted) children. Loren Van Brenk’s ”Eighty-Three Million Francs,” comes off a bit like Rose begging her father for eighty-eight bucks in Gypsy, but it does set a tone of a strong woman with great resolve who will do whatever it takes to survive. With shades of Garland packing up her kids and hitting the road – Baker is off to put on a show despite being panicked about returning to the stage. Brenk’s other original songs interspersed with Baker’s oeuvre (““I’m Just Wild About Harry” ”Who” ”Don’t Touch Me Tomato“) definitely define this as a musical, but never quite connect the themes, and often the songs feel dropped in.
We are immediately tossed to the past into Baker’s childhood to witness Josephine as the wild child of a wild mother – the daughter of a mean drunk. Howard’s portrayal of Baker’s mother is devastating and raw, she is so dismissive and loathsome that one is immediately amazed that Baker managed to make her way in the world at all, let alone manage to become so immensely successful. Though her mother harshly throws her daughter out to fend for herself, Josephine finds comfort and caring from her devoted grandmother who gives “Tumpy” a quarter – and a song filled with purpose – and encourages the young girl to go follow her dream. Once again, Howard shows her suburb talent and range – though she is the only one on stage the actual relationship between grandmother and granddaughter was palpable.
From there we follow Josephine as she quickly takes advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves; though she is a dresser for The Dixie Steppers she makes sure to learn the routines and has no problem taking the place of one of the dancers when the other girl’s unfortunate circumstance forces her to quit. Baker’s wild antics on stage which include eye rolling, comic steps, wild mugging and general scene stealing captures the eye of a benefactress who brings her to Paris where her skills were soon undressed in order to accommodate a “Savage” theme. Thus Baker finds herself physically and emotionally bare. Howard, however, chooses to stay clothed.
While so many of the moments of The Sensational Josephine Baker showcased Howard’s amazing abilities the show’s story lacked a clear through line. It seemed to be a pastiche of snapshots meant to tell a broad story quickly, which, unfortunately, left all the elements on equal footing. Important turns come off as footnotes and interesting moments are cut short to give time to rather bland production numbers. And while Howard is often riveting when embodying the people who lived in Baker’s world – specifically Miss Lydia Jones whose dismissive jealousy is deliciously sharp - her Baker is somewhat lackluster. By definition it’s almost impossible to duplicate the talent of someone whose flair was so specifically unmatched. The passing of the decades does a bit of damage as well: much of Baker’s groundbreaking and shocking behavior of the time simply comes off as quaint. Other moments however – facing prejudice when returning to the States with her caucasian lover – which might have been deeply effective to examine were left disappointingly unexplored. To perhaps focus on moments such as those in this woman’s life, rather than attempt to give a cradle-to-grave retrospective might have been a more interesting way to tell Baker’s story while still being true to the deep spirt of this fascinating woman.
Howard’s appreciation for Baker’s moxie, vibrancy and tenacity is obvious and her desire to showcase her subject from as many angles as possible is admirable. However, in giving us Josephine the young girl, Josephine the ingenue, Joesphine the toast of Paris, Josephine the force to be reckoned with and Josephine the comeback queen Howard gives us a story which diverges into too many paths. Despite strong moments I never quite made the emotional connection which allowed the final scene to deliver the triumphant blast that was intended. Howard seems to connect to the audience best when exploring the personal and intimate moments of Baker’s life rather than stepping into her larger-than-life persona.
Josephine Baker was sensational. Cheryl Howard is sensational. But bigger isn’t always better, and The Sensational Josephine Baker showed that much of what made Baker truly exceptional was not what she exposed so freely, but what she kept hidden. Show more of that, and this show will live up to its name.
~~~The Sensational Josephine Baker
Written and performed by Cheryl Howard Directed by Ian Streicher Music: Loren Van Brenk Produced by Emerging Artists Theatre Company
Theatre Row – The Beckett Theatre 410 West 42nd Street New York NY 10036 Tickets are $69.25
Tuesday @ 7pm
Wednesday @ 2pm
Thursday & Friday @ 7pm
Saturday @ 2pm & 7pm
Sunday @ 3pm