Josephine Tonight

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Editorial Review

'Josephine' star has glimmer, no shine
By Jane Horwitz
Monday, Feb. 13, 2012

Even while applauding the veteran team behind "Josephine Tonight," the undeniably entertaining new musical based on the early life of Josephine Baker now at MetroStage through March 18, one can't help coming away from the show with a stubborn sense that something is off. A couple of somethings, actually.

"Josephine Tonight" feels small in ways that have little to do with MetroStage's intimate space. In fact, director/choreographer Maurice Hines has filled the stage with crackling dance numbers and sharp acting by the four highly seasoned pros in the cast of five.

The tunes were composed by the late Wally Harper, best known as singer Barbara Cook's longtime musical director and accompanist (he died in 2004). The lyrics and script are by Sherman Yellen, a Tony nominee for the book of the 1970 musical "The Rothschilds."

Harper and Yellen's ragtime- and blues-inspired songs often sparkle with wit, melodiousness and infectious rhythm. But there are simply too many songs, especially in the very top-heavy Act 1. Every new idea in the dialogue seems to get its own number.

More important, though, is the lack of depth and grit in the performance of singer/dancer/actress Zurin Villanueva as Josephine Baker. Villanueva, it should be emphasized, has talent to burn. She was first introduced to Washington audiences in 2009, when, as a musical theater major at Howard University, she won an open audition to appear in "Crowns" at Arena Stage.

In "Josephine Tonight," however, Villanueva needs to be the molten core of the show and she isn't - not yet.

Despite her eerily Baker-like dancing (thanks, Hines) and her song-belting, Villanueva hasn't got the acting chops to make Baker sizzle and occasionally seethe. She needs to plumb the young Josephine's anger at racism in 1920s America, and even in her adopted home town of Paris.

And where is the sense of calculation when, according to Yellen's script (in which some characters seem to be composites), Josephine uses and discards people in her climb to stardom? Where is her guilt? Despite her striking physical and choreographic resemblance to the young Baker, Villanueva doesn't come close to answering those questions.

It's not all her fault - it's partly due to Yellen's overly expository script, which moves the story along in quick scenes, carrying us from young Josie's early teen years dancing in front of the Piggly Wiggly to her tours with an African American vaudeville troupe to her move to Paris and her eventual debut at the Folies Bergere.

The script lightly touches on historic issues such as segregation and race riots, subtler forms of racism and private issues, such as Baker's implied bisexuality, but it rarely delves. Too many songs to squeeze in.

Harper and Yellen's songbook has its high points, to be sure, starting right after the brassy overture (music direction, arrangements and orchestrations by David Alan Bunn) with the first song.

In "Laundry Day," Josephine's mother, Carrie McDonald (Aisha de Haas), sings about doing other people's wash in East St. Louis, and de Haas brings comic verve and a dash of hard-life edge to the number.

De Haas also shines as Bertha, a booze-sipping blues singer who takes Josephine under her wing.

The entire supporting cast is first-rate, including James T. Lane, an impressive dancer, singer and actor, both as Josephine's second husband, Eddie Baker, and as Paul, her French lover. James Alexander and Debra Walton are terrific in multiple roles and especially as the performing duo who hire the still gawky Josephine to tour with them on the African American vaudeville circuit.

The five-member orchestra under Bunn's direction (he also plays the piano) gives the show a mostly sure-noted luster.

Klyph Stanford has created a handsome series of movable vertical panels on which changing images that he designed are projected to place the action in its many locales. It's a relatively frugal and chic way to do a show with a lot of scene changes.

The costumes by Reggie Ray, on the other hand, are detailed and luxurious.

"Josephine Tonight" was workshopped in Chicago in 2006. In its MetroStage premiere, it's clear that it still needs tinkering. Hines's direction moves the evening along with panache, but while watching it you can almost see a bigger, better show growing out of this one.