In Donald Bogle's definitive history of blacks in American film, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, the incomparable entertainer Josephine Baker merits one scant mention. Of course, I guess this is warranted because St. Louis native Baker never made a movie in America. She made her fortune in France.
She was busking on the streets as a child and performed with her parents on vaudeville's chitlin' circuit, the only show biz opportunity for black musicians, singers and actors. Vivacious and preternaturally gifted, the energetic Baker, at the age of 15, moved to New York where she quickly found chorus work in Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along (1921), the first all-black Broadway jazz revue that ushered in “I'm Just Wild About Harry.” At her tender age – she was already married, three more would follow – Baker soon became, according to contemporary press releases, the highest paid chorus girl on Broadway. But in the early '20s, stardom was far removed for a black woman. It was unheard of.
Baker instinctively knew she had to get away. An opportunity to appear in Paris beckoned, and she grabbed it. She moved to France in 1925 to be in La Revue Négre, an extravaganza financed by Chicago socialite Caroline Dudley Reagan, who wanted to showcase black artists. The show made her a star, though it trafficked in blatant stereotypes. When that show closed, her stardom was cemented when she headlined at the famous Folies Bergère and performed her “Dance Sauvage.” Naked and barefoot, she shimmied and gyrated in a crude Charleston number while outfitted in a girdle of bananas. Her dance caused a sensation and, instantly, overnight, she was catapulted into the stratosphere. She remained a certifiable luminary until her death in 1975, having earned the Croix de guerre and the Legion d'honneur, France highest military awards, for her service in the Resistance during WW II. If you need a contemporary comparison, Baker's fame would outrank Madonna's or Beyoncé's.
But Baker never conquered America. She refused to play in theaters that segregated the audience and brooked no compromise. She was unrelenting in her quest for justice and equality. It was a lifelong passion and set her apart and kept her from American celebrity. But in Europe, especially France, she was a goddess.
Baker was one of the most fascinating showbiz personalities of the 20th century, and I wish her distinct effervescent personality were more represented in Josephine Tonight (2006), Sherman Yellen and Wally Harper's musical biography of this most incandescent star.
The show consumes a full hour until a glimmer of the Baker we know coalesces and comes into view. Early Baker history is fine, but the musical is seriously thrown to mama Carrie (Regina Hearne), which isn't such a bad choice when Hearne is center stage, belting out “Mama Knows,” “Laundry Day,” and “Get On With It.” She also doubles as Big Bertha, the vaudeville star who's a stand-in for Baker's surrogate mamma Jones, the vaudeville diva who nurtured young Baker. Hearne walks away with the show, which throws the balance completely off.
Dequina Moore is delightful as young Josie and has a powerhouse voice, but the star wattage that Baker naturally possessed is lacking. Moore comes into her own in the last minutes of the show when she appears in a stunning ostrich and sequin creation from costumer Sarah Smith. Here, at last, is Baker in full fledge. A true star, enveloped in plumes and crystals, dripping charisma.
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Master director/choreographer Patdro Harris, Ensemble's go-to guy for its musicals, keeps the show moving crisply, but the dialogue scenes – no fault of his – drag terribly. We can count the plot points as if paint-by-numbers; there are no surprises. The songs are OK, with the best of them delivered by Hearne in her smoky alto and gang-buster delivery. She saves this show.
Jason E. Carmichael and André Neal, playing various characters in the story, are nimble musical performers who buoy this rote bio and keep it afloat while the creators try to sink it. The offstage band, led by maestro Chika Kaba Ma'atunde, is too loud for the onstage voices, but the orchestrations are lively and have the fragrance of standard Broadway. There's no period flavor whatsoever.
Josephine Baker was unique. No question about it. She defined the Jazz Age and gave it exoticism, sex appeal, and electricity. There's not a hint of this in this routine musical bio, except Hearne. She's the real jazz baby.
Josephine Tonight continues through July 28 at 7:30 Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $36 -$50.