Press members and sponsors of Asolo Rep’s upcoming world premiere production of Josephine got a sneak peek of the Broadway-bound musical Wednesday, April 13, at the Crosley Estate.
The 1920s-era mansion on the bayfront was, as star Deborah Cox said, “the perfect setting” for the show about African-American, St. Louis-born performer Josephine Baker, who took Paris by storm in the 1920s and after. “It’s Josephine’s style,” she added while taking the mic next to Asolo Rep producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards.
Grammy nominated singer-actress Cox (who starred as Aida on Broadway) plays Josephine in the new musical, now in rehearsals and due to open in previews April 27. Joining her and Edwards at the Crosley were the rest of the cast, including Kevin Earley as one of Josephine’s romantic interests and Mark Campbell as another—Prince Gustav VI of Sweden. Also present were the show’s creators: director-choreographer Joey McKneely (who also directed and choreographed West Side Story earlier this season for Asolo Rep), librettists Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton, composer Stephen Dorff, lyricist John Bettis, producer Ken Waissman, orchestrator-arranger Steve Orich, and music director Sinai Tabak, who accompanied cast members on a couple of tunes from the show.
The first, “Est-ce que vous? (Could It Be You?”), was sung by Cox as Josephine—a song expressing Baker’s longing for a true romantic relationship. The second was “Who Cares,” performed by Earley with his “backup boys” as his character tries to pretend he doesn’t, in fact, care about Josephine’s roaming eye.
McKneeley called the show’s progress so far “an incredible journey,” explaining that it takes place in 1945 at the reopening of the Folies Bergere following World War II and is seen through Josephine’s eyes. Cox called her part “a very complex role” and said McKneeley had her “doing things I never would have seen myself doing” as the dancer Josephine.
And Waissman (who by the way developed the original Broadway production of Grease) spoke of how long the show has been gestating, telling a story of how he came across the work of the songwriting team while shopping at Colony Records in New York City. The clerk there—a longtime Colony Records fixture—was checking out Waissman’s purchase when he recognized his name, asked him what he was working on, and pointed him in the direction of a recording from a musical revue written by Dorff and Bettis. When he heard the score, said Waissman, he knew they were the right composers for Josephine.
“She was a woman who transcended her race, her time and her gender,” Waissman added. “I’m so thrilled to be working with the Asolo and Michael to have our world premiere here; we’re in secure hands.”
After previews, Josephine has its press opening night May 6 and runs through May 29 in the Mertz Theatre. For more information, head to asolorep.org.