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A CurtainUp Review
Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play
It's a story made for show business.
Josephine (neé Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906-1975) was born into the fledgling era of jazz, blues, and post-WWI flappers. It was also an era of crime and flagrant discrimination.
Written by Tod Kimbro, the bio emphasizes the "dream" part of the play, wafting over the life of a gutsy neglected and impoverished black child. She left school, ran away from home, and was dancing on street corners and in bars before adolescence. Josephine loved attention and was ambitious. She was up for anything as long as it would get her out of the dangerous poverty and racism of early St. Louis, Missouri, including marriage at age 13, and a second husband, William Baker, two years later.
When opportunity knocked, she left her husband but kept his name. At age 17, it was bye-bye St Louis, hello, New York. "Love never did last for me, but that didn't stop me every now and then." She eventually married four times.
At age 19, she was off to France, a country she knew nothing about. When told she must dance nude, she gave it a brief moment's thought and accepted. Josephine believed in herself. She knew she could dance and sing. She was young, funny and cute, and audiences responded to her exuberance. What she did not believe in was racism and segregation and a country that called her, "too black." The racism was implacable and even when she was world famous, she could not have a cup of coffee in a Las Vegas nightclub and New York's celebrated Stork Club would refuse to serve her.
It is the show's eye-catching star, Tymisha Harris, who evokes Josephine's look (false eyelashes and plastered hair) and provocative spirit. Interspersed by a taped soundtrack of period songs, it's easy to believe that "Blue Skies" spoke for her new life of fame and money in 1920's Paris. Recognizing the horror of racism of America, is the haunting "Strange Fruit." Some songs come from Josephine's collection, others reflect her era and underline her adventures.
Directed by Michael Marinaccio, Harris puts all she has into rounding out the sketchy portrait of Josephine, intensely emotional and farcically comical. With a husky, expressive voice, blithe nudity and a captivating demeanor, she reaches into the audience, flirting with both men and women. Which is what Baker herself would have done. As choreographer, Harris boldly performs Baker's clownish "monkey" dances, eventually becoming infamous with her "Banana Dance," performed topless with 16 bananas strung into a skirt. Actually, this was more of a wide belt than a skirt. When she performed the dance in the United States, Baker had to wear a bra and pasties.
As costume designer, Harris let her imagination flow, accumulating a wardrobe of sparkling, diaphanous costumes. On the small stage, set designer, Marinaccio placed a screen on one side of the stage draped with theatrically fringed costumes where Harris could change. On the other side was a cluttered dressing table holding more gowns and the trademark turbans.
Glamorous, outrageous and wealthy, Josephine remained haunted by the memories of her American childhood. She adopted 12 multiracial children and was honored as a spy for the French Resistance in WWII and later received the highest military honors. Toward the end of her life, she supported the Civil Rights movement in Washington DC, singing and extended version of, "The Times They Are A-Changing."
Much more can and has been written about Josephine Baker than this 75-minute piece. This world-renown entertainer was always haunted by the memories of her American childhood. As Tymisha Harris opens with Josephine's signature song, Cole Porter's "J'Ai Deux Amours" ("I Have Two Loves,"), she pauses to comment, "As much as I tried to leave it behind, I loved the country that spurned me just as much as the city that embraced me." This dichotomy drove the direction of her life, and of this show.
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Book/Musical Direction: Tod Kimbro
Cast: Tymisha Harris
Choreography: Tymisha Harris
Set Design: Michael Marinaccio
Lighting Design: Michael Marinaccio, Gregg Bellon
Sound Design: Michael Marinaccio, Tod Kimbro
Choreography: Tymisha Harris
Costumes: Tymisha Harris
Light and Sound Operator: Ben Dupree
Production Stage Manager: Ben Dupree and Lindsay Taylor
Running Time: 75 minutes. No intermission
Theatre: SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, New York, NY
Tickets: $39. Visit SoHoPlayhouse.com
Performances: Thurs., Fri. at. 7pm, Sat. at 2pm, 7pm, Sun. at 2pm. Show on Wed., Feb. 8 at 7pm. No show, Jan. 28 at 7pm.
Previews: 01/18/18. Opens: 01/21/18. Closes: 02/11/18. The show is intended for adult audiences, as it contains adult content and nudity.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on preview performance 01/19/18
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