“Josephine Tonight” hurtles down the track at lightning speed with a fast-paced, musical bonanza about legendary entertainer Josephine Baker’s early life and meteoric career, from her days as a street performer and on to Harlem’s Cotton Club and Paris’s Folies Bergere.
Broadway veterans Sherman Yellen, who wrote the book and lyrics, the show’s late composer Wally Harper, and the megawatt choreographer Maurice Hines, who co-directed, combine forces in this world premiere production at MetroStage. Working with a cast of five seasoned actors whose bios read like a New York playbill and who play more than a dozen roles between them, Hines and co-director Mel Johnson Jr. bring Baker back to life.
Area theatre buffs will remember Hines won a Helen Hayes award in 2009 for his choreography of “Cool Papa’s Party” at MetroStage and starred in the blockbuster “Sophisticated Ladies” at the Lincoln Theatre the following year.
The story of Baker’s life is complex and riveting. A bleak childhood on the streets of East St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century didn’t provide many avenues to success for a lanky black girl whose mother was a laundress and whose grandmother a slave in South Carolina.
When we meet Josie, “my little blackbird” as her mama calls her, the tough and willful teenager is dancing the chicken strut in front of the local Piggly Wiggly, busking for nickels and dimes and “Shakin’ her bottom and tossin’ her top,” as the scandalized Reverend Loomis tells Josephine’s mother.
Enter The Jolly Jones Family, a minstrel troupe that whisks her off with — mama’s approval — to play black vaudeville houses on “The Sharecropper’s Circuit.”
As Josephine Baker, Zurin Villanueva has all the right sass as she taps, struts and slinks into your heart with the ferocity of a lioness. She captures Baker’s persona from gangly teen to the toast of Paris. Her sinuous interpretation of Baker’s notorious banana dance in a waxy skirt and a top of marshmallow-sized coconuts is mesmerizing.
Aisha De Haas, another veteran of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, (are you feelin’ the Fats Waller vibe yet?) plays two characters that are polar opposites, Baker’s mother, Carrie, and Big Bertha Smith, her confidante and mentor. Yet Haas segues seamlessly between them. Her voice is a rich blend of powerhouse gospel, blues and red-hot sizzle, and when she delivers the number “Pretty Is” in the second act, it’s guaranteed she’ll rip your heart out.
James T. Lane displays elegant restraint playing Eddie, Baker’s first love, and Paul, her Parisian Pygmalion, who introduces Josephine to a life of luxury and sophistication. With smooth, Astaire-like steps are precise and lightening quick as he boasts a tender, soulful voice in his rendering of “Never Thought I’d Find You Tonight.”
The high-energy and super-adorable Debra Walton (Broadway veteran of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) and the old-school cool James Alexander round out the small, adaptive cast.
Settle in for more than two-dozen toe-tapping numbers backed by arranger, conductor and pianist David Alan Bunn and a five-piece band whose members have played for the greats, from Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Holiday to Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.
“Josephine Tonight” is sheer entertainment from start to finish with all the delicious ingredients to fast track it to Broadway: joke-cracking, high-stepping, hard times and love songs featuring a strong cast that delivers its emotional heat with heart and soul.
“Josephine Tonight” runs through March 18 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St. For tickets and information visit metrostage.org.