By MARILYN LESTER**** Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, billed as a combination of cabaret, theater and dance, scores high marks for story telling and presentation, even if the title of the show is a bit highfalutin. None the less, this one-woman show about the life of Josephine Baker serves well the object of its affection. The play is the creation of a troika of talent: Tymisha Harris, who plays Baker; Tod Kimbro, who wrote the book and who is music director; and Michael Marinaccio, who directed. The show debuted at the 2016 San Diego Fringe Festival, winning awards for “Outstanding Solo Performance” and “Best Show.” It’s since gone on to other productions and has garnered more praise and awards. These are not without merit. Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play has its flaws, but mostly succeeds due to the charm and singing and dancing abilities of Harris.
The now iconic Josephine Baker was the first African-American international superstar. She achieved this stature by a fortuitous move to Paris early in her career in the 1920s. Paris was the place to be in those days, and Baker, without the curse of America’s legacy of slavery hanging over her head, made the most of it. She had multiple interracial marriages and homosexual relationships, and performed in men’s clothing before the term “drag” existed. Later in life she became the adoptive parent of 12 children and worked for civil rights. She was also a member of the French Resistance and a spy during World War ll. Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play does a crackerjack job of choosing the points that tell Baker’s entire story and conveying them with interest and expectation. Hats off to Harris, also, for overcoming the challenges and obstacles many actors face in portraying a legend.
Harris has singing and dancing chops galore, and her recreation of Baker’s “Danse Sauvage,” and its micro-skirt of a string of artificial bananas was both amusing and skilled. Like Baker, Harris has no problem performing nearly nude; her commitment to the character and ease with which she slips into Baker’s persona make the intimacy of so much bare skin completely natural. Harris plays Baker mostly with a breathless urgency and an underlay of naivette. The interpretation is a valid actor’s choice, but a few more layers of depth would not go amiss. Near the end of the show, in portraying the mature Baker, Harris hits a perfect note. Her rendidtion of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” in a lower register than previous vocalizations, was masterful and memorable. A bridge between the two Baker personas would be a welcome finessing of Harris’ performance.
A major success point of the production lies in the many exquisite costumes, designed by Harris. The downside is the awkwardness of changing into and out of them, much of which happens behind a screen. Director Marinaccio has striven to make the changes seamless (no pun intended), but the unavoidable attention to the process is distracting. There’s also considerable audience interaction in the show, which, like other instances of breaking the fourth wall, subtract from the piece by removing the focus on Harris and her portrayal. Likewise, the prerecorded voices of several unseen characters from time to time are also off-putting and unsatisfying. Alternatives would be to incorporate these influences in Harris’ monologue or to have the real thing, which could be accomplished by a piano player. And that’s another item for consideration; Harris performs to tracks. She does it well, and her timing is superb, but there’s nothing like the real thing. Even a single piano would add to the overall quality of the production. Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play is a worthy piece of theater. It’s a solid, entertaining production. With a few refinements it could be considerably more than it is, and that would be très magnifique.
Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, Thursday through Saturday at 7PM; Matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2PM. Running time is 75 minutes without an intermission,
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St, New York, NY, 212-691-1555, SoHoPlayhouse.com