BWW Review: JOSEPHINE TONIGHT Resurrects the Jazz Age at The Ensemble Theatre!
In 1927 Josephine Baker went onstage in Paris wearing nothing but pearls and well placed bananas. She came off that night one of the world's most celebrated entertainers. She was lauded as the personification of the Jazz Age, and she blazed the trail that led popular culture to icons such as Madonna and Beyonce. Never had there been someone so bold and unapologetic about creating shock and awe in a performance. Ensemble Theatre's JOSEPHINE TONIGHT is a musical that largely focuses on the struggle leading up to her fame. It's a gem of a production that showcases the company's strengths and celebrates one of history's most amazing women.
Leave it to the Ensemble Theatre to bring us a musical that only has four cast members, but feels like an army of entertainers is up there at all times. This show calls on the small cast to create the world of Josephine Baker from her humble beginnings in St. Louis being raised by her single mother. They take us on a journey from dancing in front of the Piggy Wiggly all the way to a very large stage in Paris. In between we get to see glimpses of what it was like for black entertainers to travel the "Chitlin Circuit" which were theaters that catered to black audiences. We see the struggles, the racism, but also the sheer joy of being onstage and doing what you love.
This cast is absolutely four of the best musical actors I've seen in any Houston production, and most of them are homegrown talents that have contributed significantly to our arts scene. Jason Carmichael and Andre Neal play both male and female roles throughout the evening, and they whirl through the numbers with devilish charm. Carmichael has physical comedy chops that elevate his scenes, and he had the audience howling with his "white lady" impressions which are both hysterical and sweet simultaneously. Neal is a great dancer, and he has incredible chemistry whenever he needs to partner with the Josephine character in a number. Regina Hearne plays all of the mother figures including Josephine's biological parent and a vaudeville diva who teaches her the ropes. She has a large voice that brings the house down several times over, and she gets the best songs of the evening.
Dequina Moore is a marvel in the titular role of Josephine Baker. She plays this wide eyed and breathless, a girl who knows she is on the verge of something more and impatient to get there. She dances with abandon and sings like an angel. It's no surprise she has a list of Broadway credits in her bio, because this is a Great White Way performance if I ever saw one. The show hinges on us believing in her star power, and Moore makes it easy to be a fan. She's the heart of the play, and she knows how to showcase that. And her recreation of the famed banana dance is awe inspiring.
Director and choreographer Patdro Harris has put in a lot of energy to this staging. He keeps things moving at a nice clip, and he's blended in great research to make the era feel more real. The entire creative team is strong, and the technical aspects and orchestrations are immaculate. The Ensemble can compete with bigger houses such as the Alley or even TUTS when you look at the level of their work. This company is one of the strongest Houston has to offer, and JOSEPHINE TONIGHT showcases that well. They raise this material up several notches.
If there's anything that might hold back this show it's the script and the score. The structure reminded me a lot of GYPSY - a bawdy legend is schooled by her mother until she makes it. It portrays the young Josephine Baker, but doesn't offer the fascinating later chapters like when Baker aided the French Resistance in World War II or began running an orphanage in her European mansion. Also, where are the songs Josephine sang? We get a lot of original material, but none of the standards Baker was known for appear. The stage performances in France could have used that authenticity. The result of only showing a young wide-eyed Josephine and very little of her real stage show makes the evening feel like we are just watching a little girl rise up. It's far too family friendly to honor the real legacy of a figure like Baker who was a rebel and provocative in every move she made. Like GYPSY it avoids the more spectacular legend that the real person was about. That said though, this show does find a way to make that legacy safe for younger audience members to enjoy.
The Ensemble Theatre's JOSEPHINE TONIGHT is a celebration of Josephine Baker, and simply a strong piece of theater to boot. The actors and the tech rise above a simple story to dazzle the audience in so many ways. It's a gem for the Houston arts scene and an appropriate climax to their season. Ironically it's the ensemble that makes this one pop and sing with all the right notes of the roaring twenties.
JOSPEHINE TONIGHT plays through July 28th at the Ensemble Theatre. You can acquire tickets through their website at http://www.ensemblehouston.com/ . You can also call their box office at (713) 520-0055.