The narrator of Looking for Josephine, the joyous Josephine Baker revue that ended its American premiere run Sunday afternoon as part of the ambitious Peak Performances series at Mointclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, explains why the American singer was not fully appreciated in her home country: She was too much of a clown. She was too African.
At Saturday night’s performance, I realize that even though Josephine died more than three decades ago, some things haven’t changed. At least one person in the audience last night was put off by the story — its French-ness (“It’s not in English”) and Josephine’s whirlwind free-spirited-ness (“He’s going to strip her?”).
The production by La Compagnie Jérôme Savary is that it is rather conservative. Josephine, played splendidly by Nicolle Rochelle, is never actually nude — even at her least-dressed she appeared to be wearing pasties. Yet the suggestion of nudity was bothersome to at least a few.
The book is rather slight. It offers a sketch of the life of Josephine told through the eyes of residents of New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. The show opens with three characters in an inflatable boat, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. A French theatrical producer, Slap Goldman (Michel Dussarrat, who also designed the costumes) shows up, seemingly oblivious to the damage and human suffering around him, looking for someone capable of playing Josephine in a production of La Revue Nègre that he is staging back in France.
Slap’s eyes light upon Cindy (Rochelle), who’s in the boat with Old Joe (Walter Reynolds) and Tom (Allen Hoist). One thing leads to another, and Cindy goes off to France, where she plays Josephine. The story comes full circle when Cindy gets a break in her performance schedule and returns home to Nola to find that Old Joe died while she was away.
The show is entertaining and has spectacular singing and dancing. But at times it goes off the rails when it tries to tap serious themes, as it does in a disconcerting scene of devil-may-care dancing performed in front of a projected backdrop of filmed Ku Klux Klan demonstrations and cross burnings.
The show is not entirely ven informative at times. After all, how many of us remember Josephine as a paragon of Civil Rights? Yet she was. For instance, a photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flashed on the backdrop serves as a reminder that King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, offered Josephine a leadership role after King’s assassination.
If you missed this show, Peak Performances has plenty of other music and dance offerings this season, including a one-off concert by pianist Mario Formenti this Saturday evening. . All the productions tend to be first rate, and, with tickets priced at a rock-bottom $15 this season, the value is high. Check out the schedule here.