The life of African-American singer-dancer-actress Josephine Baker, born in poverty in St. Louis but ascending to stardom in the Paris of the 1920s, is certainly good fodder for a musical. There have, in fact, been other attempts prior to the world premiere of Josephine now onstage at Asolo Rep. (One of them was staged at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe a few seasons ago.)
But where to begin? In the case of this new work, with a book by Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton, music by Stephen Dorff and lyrics by John Bettis, the intent is to focus on a specific period of time in Baker’s long life, mostly the years 1939 to 1945, at Paris’ Folies Bergere and other locations. So we don’t see much of Josephine’s early struggles, except when the grown Josephine (Deborah Cox) interacts briefly with her younger self (Tori Bates).
The past is a time that Josephine would rather forget—or certainly embroider lavishly—to put aside the pain that came before her success as an entertainer in France. This Josephine is a decidedly old-fashioned musical in its approach to her story, and one slanted more towards comedy than tragedy, although Baker must have had plenty of the latter.
Instead, we see Josephine addressing her loving audiences, having a fling with Prince Gustav of Sweden (Mark Campbell), who’s married and can never give her what she really wants, and taking for granted her bandleader, Jo Bouillon (Kevin Earley), the one man who’s really always there for her. It’s a pretty superficial interpretation of Josephine; even though Cox does Baker’s famous banana dance with gusto and has plenty of appeal, we don’t really get to know or care about her character as much as we should.
It might help if we saw some more of the young Josephine, whom the older woman must at first reject before she can accept; there’s a natural wellspring of emotion there, and Bates is a winning performer throughout. As it is, Josephine’s sudden Act II transition from a diva who likes to be lavished with jewels into a devoted heroine of the French Resistance seems unconvincing.
And there’s probably something wrong with a show where some of the most memorable moments don’t revolve around the star. As Josephine’s friend and mentor, Bricktop, Lynette DuPree gets to deliver some of the better numbers (her Nobody’s Listenin’ is a rouser). And then there’s the gay duo of Josephine’s longtime dresser (Matthew McGee) and the prince’s man (Michael Keyloun). They’re amusing swapping complaints about their employers and edging towards a relationship, but they also serve to pull focus from the main story.
As you might expect from an Asolo Rep show (especially one aiming at Broadway), the production values here are great. Eduardo Sicangco’s costumes, especially for Cox and her showgirls, are fantastic, and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set for the Folies as lush as you could want. Likewise, director-choreographer Joey McKneely has his cast and chorus doing some outstanding work on the dance numbers. And Cox, who puts over the wistful Est-Ce Que C’est Vous? and the defiant I’m Coming Back with power, gets a number well suited to her pop sensibilities with the show’s closer, How Many Oceans?
But there does need to be some work done on the play’s book, and perhaps its tone, if Josephine is really going to score. Producer Kenneth Waissman has already devoted years to this project, and will no doubt be willing to devote whatever it takes to make that happen.
Josephine continues through May 29; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.