Josephine-a burlesque cabaret dream play

This is the third or fourth one woman Josephine Baker show I’ve seen and, despite serious issues, it’s better than the others. Tymisha Harris is attractive and full of personality. She’s beautifully dressed, moves well, and sings with feeling. (Terrific Costume Design including the epochal banana ensemble- Tymisha Harris.)

Josephine Baker, (1906-1975), born poor as Freda Josephine McDonald, was a flamboyant entertainer who, while only in her teens and much to her surprise, took Paris by storm. Having left a harshly segregated America, she settled abroad, eventually touring internationally. Baker was unselfconsciousness about exploiting her own body. With success, this became exhibitionism that amounted to branding. She was married five times and a sexual libertine; reveled in and generous with money as if it would never run short. The star knew simply everyone of note in her time.

Unable to bear children and with no stable relationship, Baker began acquiring youngsters on her tours – purchasing, spiriting away (sometimes to parental or government objection) and adopting 12 kids of widely diverse race whom the press called her “rainbow children.” As finances dwindled, and Baker toured, their lives were often difficult and spare between treats. (Read Jean Claude Baker’s book.)

During the war, Josephine was a successful, unsuspected spy, easily sequestering messages in lingerie. Later in life, aware of what was going on in America, she became something of an activist. The performer worked, if rarely and fleeing creditors, as long as venues would have her. She retained her amazing body and proud stature.

Having read a number of books and interviewed her adopted son, the late Jean Claude Baker, at length, I find the show well researched. You won’t gain any insight into the artist and omissions run in Baker’s favor, but presented facts are, at least, facts.

As far as I can tell, musical numbers are also accurately chosen, even the flirty, novelty “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes” (performed in a Carmen Miranda get-up) about which I was at first skeptical. Unfortunately, Tod Kimbro’s Musical Direction lacks skill and finesse. Accompaniment is hit or miss. (Music is taped.) Also, Harris’s French is not good. As she’s apparently been on the road with this for some time, one would think…

Josephine was an untrained talent. Awkward improvisation of early dancing fits the story. (Baker was looser.) Choreography is also credited to Harris. Singing with polish comes too soon on the timeline, but the actress lowers and scratches a later vocal effectively indicating age. The song to which I refer, performed at Martin Luther King’s iconic Washington, D.C. rally (Baker was there at his invitation), goes on much too long, tipping the balance of the piece in favor of civil rights – a misnomer. One can’t fault Harris for lack of spirit, however.

Either Director Michael Marinaccio is too close to his collaborative partner in creating the show – thus, uncritical, or Harris is playing fast and loose with what was prescribed. Intermittent, Fanny Brice-like mugging does neither Baker nor the show any favors. This extends to presumably ad-libbed asides like “Awesome!” and “Don’t judge,” which are likely not in the script.

Despite the title, a swell pair of pasties, and interaction with the front row–the request that a male patron put on her bra-like costume top and, later, seductively sitting on a woman’s lap (Baker was bisexual), one can hardly call it burlesque. Don’t get your hopes up. Note: Neither of these directorial devices can be seen by 95 percent of the closely packed audience.

The play is not without entertainment value if you lower your standards and know little or nothing about Josephine Baker. Its parts simply don’t make a polished whole. Frustration comes with attributing Tymisha Harris with greater chops than evident in this production. If she’d had a better, more strong-willed creative team, Josephine might’ve been a more worthy piece.

Photos Courtesy of the Production

Josephine-a burlesque cabaret dream play by Tod Kimbro
Created by Tymisha Harris, Michael Marinaccio, Tod Kimbro
Directed by Michael Marinaccio
SoHo Playhouse  
15 Van Dam Street
Through February 11, 2018

About Alix Cohen (627 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.