The Sensational Josephine Baker
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 7, 2010
"Who was the woman behind the show girl? What was Josephine's inner truth? Who was she really?" Those are the questions, writes Cheryl Howard in her program notes, that drove her to create The Sensational Josephine Baker. This one-person show is thoroughly researched, and Howard gives a virtuosic performance, playing Josephine, her family, friends, lovers, and rivals with razor sharp distinctions in voice and posture. But in the end, the real Josephine Baker—and the emotive life behind her risque public image—remain elusive.
Ambitiously, Howard tackles many of the contradictions inherent in Josephine's life—contrasting Josephine's efforts to reject her black identity with her passionate commitment to civil rights, her fierce independence coupled with a desperate need to be loved. It's refreshing to see a historically-themed one-person show that considers multiple opinions, both good and bad, on its subject. Howard gives voice not only to Josephine and her supporters, but also to her rivals and enemies, including spiteful fellow chorus girls and, more menacingly, racist American critics. Howard is nothing less than sensational in her star turn as Josephine, creating a persona at once gangly and elegant, innocent yet coy, and self-doubting and indefatigable. Under Ian Spreicher's smooth direction, Howard shifts easily from Josephine to the myriad of other people in her life—including her vengeful mother, her doting grandmother, and her hapless lovers.
Every component of the show, from Howard's charismatic performance to David Bengali's evocative projections, is finely polished. Yet there is a curious lack of dramatic tension. Josephine's rise and fall and rise feels more dutiful than earned. The cumulative effect veers dangerously closer to history lesson than drama.
Still, there are harrowing lessons to be learned. We witness how young Josephine endures abuse from the white woman she cleans house for, and how a successful Josephine is spat at for using the front entrance to a hotel during her brief return to the States. We see how a destitute Josephine, 83 million francs in debt, is driven to make a comeback at age 69 and, against all odds, succeeds.
The tone isn't always tragic. Howard includes some memorable moments of humor, most particularly in a showstopping turn as an elderly Miss Lydia Jones, a toughly prim former chorus girl who recalls Josephine's success with undisguised envy...and who doesn't realize how ridiculous she is. And any time Howard bursts into song and dance as Josephine, the show takes flight, especially in the recreation of Josephine's last concert. Dressed in a teal fishtail-shaped gown, Howard-as-Josephine stands center stage and sings movingly in French of her love of Paris, giving you a glimpse of what Baker's onstage charisma might have been like.
In the end, despite its unevenness, The Sensational Josephine Baker has some sensational moments—and a compelling central performance. It left me wanting to know more about Josephine Baker, and to see the show's next incarnation.