Review: Josephine Reigns Supreme in THE LAST NIGHT OF JOSEPHINE BAKER at Midtown Arts Center

Before Beyonce, before Miss Ross, before Etta or Lena or Pearl, there was Josephine Baker, and she was all of them, rolled into one. She was a singer, a dancer, a sex symbol on the world stage.

She was also a French Resistance correspondent during WWII, a mother, a tireless advocate for children and racial equality. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor, and was the first woman ever given a state funeral in Paris. If anyone could ever be described as larger than life, it was Josephine Baker. How was she even possible?

She was born in St. Louis in 1906 to a washerwoman mother and a musician father. Her father soon left, and Josephine worked with her mother and later as a maid in wealthy households, but that wasn't nearly enough for her.

She had talent, and the ability to perform, and had modest success in vaudeville, but her race in the post-Reconstruction United States limited her to a certain strata above which she could not rise. Josephine was never good with limits.

She made her way to Paris, and in the free-wheeling, anything-goes 20s, found her place. She became the toast of Europe, but she never forgot her early failure in the US, and vowed to return. In the 1950s she did, and faced the same resistance and racial bigotry from which she had escaped. Crushed, she returned to Paris.

As her star began to fade, she concentrated more on her work with children, adopting a group of children of different races and ethnicities she called her 'Rainbow Family". She wanted to prove that race didn't matter; that all could live together.

She wasn't always successful. She bought a chateau outside Paris for her brood, and eventually she ran out of money.

In 1975, fifty years after she first took Paris by storm, and at the age of 68, Josephine was back on the stage in a come-back performance, to rave reviews.

Four days later, following a cerebral hemorrhage, she slipped into a coma and died.

Josephine Baker's story is Shakespearean in scope, and Victor Victoria and Esurient Arts (e·su·ri·ent: an archaic adjective meaning hungry or greedy. Don't worry, I had to look it up too.) present it in THE LAST NIGHT OF JOSEPHINE BAKER at the Midtown Arts Center.

The scope is the problem. Playwright Victoria makes an admirable attempt, but the story is just too big for the setting. There is just so much one can put into a two-hour show, and Victoria puts most of it in. In fact, this has been the problem with all the attempts to bring the story to the stage or screen that I've seen; the sheer amount of material overwhelms.

That's not to say that this wasn't a good try.

First of all, there were the two Josephines, Jasmin Roland as the "Present Josephine" and Erica Young as the "Past Josephine". Much of the story is told in flashback, with Young as the earlier Josephine.

Either of these two actresses could have carried the play alone; together, they are dynamite.

Roland plays the older Josephine with such grace, and a certain world-weariness that embodies the character, while still retaining a sassiness that endears.

Young has the youthful energy and enthusiasm that made Josephine a star in the first place.

The two women meld perfectly.

And each gets a performance piece, Miss Roland most memorably when she sings her theme song, "J'ai Deux Amours" to a group of fans outside the theater, and Miss Young in the famous "Banana skirt dance", partnered beautifully by dancer Antonio Vines.

The rest of the hard-working cast double and triple as various characters in Josephine's life. Some I found a little confusing as to identity, but I managed to keep up with the aid of the program.

Stepanie Edwards, as Josephine's companion, Ginette, does good supporting work.

The busiest of these is Todd Greenfield, a company staple, who played Walter Winchell, Maurice Chevalier (!) and an army sergeant during WWII. A daunting triple threat.

THE LAST NIGHT OF Josephine Baker is an ambitious show, and doesn't always hit the mark, but Josephine's story deserves all the telling it can get.

THE LAST NIGHT OF Josephine Baker, by Vincent Victoria

Midtown Art Center

3414 La Branch at Holman

February 24- March 5, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 4.

For tickets, call 832.856.1292

Photo Credit: Gary Laird


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