BWW Reviews: JOSEPHINE TONIGHT: Following The Rise Of Josephine Baker
The theater is filled with shows that take place in the entertainment business. Whether it is a about a young girl making good on Broadway or two crooked producers trying not to make good, the world of entertainment is a fascinating place. However, does the theater really need another show about the business of show? It does when it is as delightful as Josephine Tonight.
Now running at MetroStage, Josephine Tonight tells the story of the legendary Josephine Baker’s rise to fame. After living a poor existence in St. Louis, Josephine Baker fought to the top. She started on the road and then performed in Harlem but her fame only came when she made a splash in Paris. She remained a star there for the rest of her life. Sadly, Josephine did not have the same level of success in the United States due to the racism that was prevalent at the time.
Josephine Tonight tells this tale with the help of many fine songs and an extremely strong cast. The creative team behind the show is quite impressive as well. Renowned dancer Maurice Hines directed and choreographed the piece. Sherman Yellen, who has worked with the likes of Bock and Harnick, wrote the book and the lyrics. The music was written by Wally Harper, who many may know as the music director for Barbara Cook.
While entertaining, the show does exhibit a couple missteps. The first act is a bit too long and the opening number does not seem to fit with the rest of the show. The number features a song that explains to the audience that the actors are playing multiple roles. This is just not necessary. Audiences are smart enough to figure that out and in the end it seems the song’s sole purpose is to invent a reason to sing the lyric, “Josephine Tonight.”
That being said, the show moves well and the bulk of the score is terrific. It successfully captures the spirit of Josephine’s journey using the styles of blues and ragtime. The music is skillfully composed and the lyrics are sharp. “Laundry Day” sung by Josephine’s hard working mother (Aisha de Haas), lets us know the kind of tales our laundry has to tell in way that is clever and entertaining and “Cinderella Me” beautifully expresses a young Josephine’s (Zurin Villanueva) dreams for the future.
There is a lot of talent in this show. Aisha de Haas dominates the stage as Josephine’s mother, Carrie and as her mentor, Big Bertha Smith. She is a powerful actor with a singing voice to match. Her performance of “Bertha’s Blues” is worth the price of admission. Taking on the title role, Zurin Villanueva does a lovely job as Josephine. She deftly takes the character from an unschooled teenager to a ambitious young adult and handles the musical numbers well. Ms. Villanueva shines her brightest when she is dancing. Under the tutelage of Mr. Hines, Ms. Villanueva does a wonderful job of capturing Josephine Baker’s iconic moves.
James T. Lane plays two of Josephine’s love interests. Sadly, we only get a taste of Mr. Lane’s amazing dancing expertise but he shows off his acting chops by playing two very different characters. Debra Walton and James Alexander make up the remainder of the cast. They are equally talented and tackle numerous roles with skill.
MetroStage is a small space but it lends to the intimacy of the piece. The set by Klyph Stanford is utilitarian but it works and Reggie Ray’s costumes capture the time period of the show.
There are a lot of great things about this piece and it has a lot of potential. It just needs a little bit of tweaking. However, in the end this show has a lot of charm – just like the real Josephine Baker. The result is an enjoyable night of theater. Josephine Tonight runs till March 18th at MetroStage.
MetroStage is located at 1201 N. Royal Street, Alexandria, Virginia.
Theater information may be found at www.metrostage.com .
Ticket information may be found at www.boxofficetickets.com or by calling 1-800-494-8497.
For group sales and information, call 703-548-9044.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography