For those who have even a passing knowledge of who Josephine Baker was, Josephine Tonight isn’t going to hold many secrets. Despite Baker’s tough upbringing and the challenges ahead of her, it’s no surprise that the actress/singer/dancer is going to end up a major star by the end of the new biographical musical debuting at MetroStage. But the joys of Josephine Tonight are in the journey to eventual stardom—the jubilant choreography, soaring vocals, and satisfying songs that accompany Baker’s rise to the top.
Sherman Yellen and Wally Harper’s world premiere musical is a conventional showbiz story that focuses on Baker’s early years—her roots in Missouri, her stints in vaudeville and Harlem, and her ascendance to fame in Paris. The portraits of “Josie,” her world-weary mother, and the performers (and foils) who surround her are painted through occasional dialogue and, more frequently, a set of 24 songs, some bluesy, some plaintive, and nearly all of them catchy and cleverly penned.
Yellen and Harper have a way of taking a spare concept or theme and building a successful, satisfactory song around it. The show opens with “Laundry Day,” in which Baker’s mother, Carrie (Aisha de Haas), winkingly shares with the audience how a basket of clothes, suspicious stains and all, keeps no secrets from her. The show features several invigorating pastiche numbers: We get our first taste of Josephine’s early vaudeville days through the comical “Slap Happy Joneses,” which is accented with peppy, hammy choreography. The show’s songs can strike emotional chords, as well, such as the coy duet of reluctant love, “Never Thought I’d Find You Tonight,” and stage mother Bertha’s (de Hass again) heartbreaking ode to fading beauty, “Pretty Is.”
Josephine Tonight is centered on an exuberant performance from Zurin Villanueva as Baker, a performer who can light up the stage with a 1,000-watt grin or beguile with a mischievous pout. Her Josie starts out gangly and overenthusiastic, and transforms into an elegant, commanding star with a primal, powerful stage presence. Director and choreographer Maurice Hines showcases Villanueva’s dancing abilities through a charged, African-influenced cabaret number and a delightful rapid-fire tap-dance-off between Baker and her first love interest, Eddie (James T. Lane, earnest and smooth; he later transforms into Josephine’s bohemian French lover, Paul).
Whether she’s eyeing her daughter with skepticism as Carrie or commanding the audience as the larger-than-life Bertha, de Haas dominates the stage with powerhouse vocals and a take-no-prisoners attitude. James Alexander and Debra Walton do some heavy lifting as a number of utility players, from fellow revue performers to parishioners concerned with Josie’s “slipping” morality. The caliber of performance in Josephine Tonight, guided by Hines’s wise direction, is consistently first-rate, further elevating the show from ho-hum musical biography to a knockout night at the theater.
Josephine Tonight runs through March 18 at MetroStage. Tickets ($45 to 50) are available through MetroStage’s website.