Sunday, September 2, 2012

Homage to an Icon in ‘The Sensational Josephine Baker’


IN “The Sensational Josephine Baker,”
writer/actress/singer Cheryl Howard uses character sketches and songs to tell the fascinating life story of performer Josephine Baker in a 90-minute one-woman performance.

The American-born singer, dancer and actress achieved her greatest success in France and enjoyed a 50-year career before her untimely death just days following her anniversary concert in 1975. “The Sensational Josephine Baker,” is presented by Emerging Artists Theatre at Theatre Row Studios through 9 Sept. (See video above of actor and director talking about production).

The play begins and ends in Paris with a 68-year-old JB on the eve of her 50th anniversary concert. After a brief setup portraying the aging diva facing foreclosure and the displacement of her 12 adopted children, CH deftly hops in and out of characters as diverse as a pubescent JB, her abusive mother and doting grandmother, American and French stage managers, a French painter and American-born French nightclub owner Ada “Bricktop” Smith.

Cheryl Howard as Josephine Baker. Images courtesy of Emerging Artists Theatre.

In “The Sensational Josephine Baker,” CH’s character sketches are well defined and nuanced – JB’s grandmother, her common-law husband and manager, Giuseppe “Pepito” Abatino, and elderly former chorus girl Lydia being among the most memorable.

The character work is where CH seems to excel, taking on both vocal and physical metamorphoses, with the narrative largely occurring as one side of a conversation with JB. The exception is when Lydia addresses the audience directly, with frequent hilarious results.

CH’s use of dance and movement are effective in conveying the energy and comedic personality of a very young JB; however, her vocal work does not match her skill in character development in this regard. Both period and original songs are used in the production, and the vocal disparity is most apparent when CH sings as a younger JB.

In contrast, an original song performed as JB’s grandmother and the ending performance as an older JB land home with dramatic effect. The musical numbers are intermittently placed and are noticeably absent in the middle of the play, leading one to consider whether they could have been largely removed or whether recorded music could have been more used.

The staging of “The Sensational Josephine Baker” by director Ian Streicher is swiftly paced, a welcome relief for the audience in an intermission-less piece of more than an hour. The work of IS is greatly aided by the impressive set design by Tim McMath. His urban skyline, with projections by David Bengali, add visual stimulation and provide context in what is otherwise a production that uses few props and set pieces. Costumes by Nicole Wee and lighting by G. Benjamin Swope also contribute to the overall effect.

While mention is made of JB’s adopted children early in “The Sensational Josephine Baker,” details as to their number and numerous nationalities as well as various historical milestones have been left out. Among them, JB was the first black American to star in a motion picture (“Zouzou”) and was actively involved in the American Civil Rights movement during the 1950s.

She was also involved in the French Resistance during World War II, receiving numerous French honors, including the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

Although CH’s ambitious undertaking leaves gaping holes in JB’s history, she gives a high-energy performance and presents a cohesive story arc that delves heavily into JB’s lesser known early years.

Visit to learn more about “The Sensational Josephine Baker.

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