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Broadway’s Best Hit the Heights in Josephine Tonight at MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 7, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times

James Alexander, James T. Lane, Zurin Villanueva, Aisha de Haas, Debra Walton Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

James Alexander, James T. Lane, Zurin Villanueva, Aisha de Haas, Debra Walton Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

Josephine Tonight hurtles the down the track at lightning speed with a fast-paced, musical bonanza about the legendary Josephine Baker’s early life and meteoric show biz career, beginning with her days as a street performer and on to Harlem’s Cotton Club and the Folies Bergere.  Broadway veterans Sherman Yellen, who wrote the book and lyrics; the late Wally Harper, who composed the show; and the megawatt choreographer, Maurice Hines, who took on the additional role of director in this world premiere production.  Working with a cast of five seasoned actors, whose bios read like a New York playbill and who play over a dozen roles between them, Hines and co-director Mel Johnson, Jr. bring this dazzling show to Alexandria’s MetroStage.

DC area theatre buffs will remember Hines won a Helen Hayes award in 2009 for his choreography of Cool Papa’s Party at MetroStage and the following year starred in the blockbuster Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theatre.

 Aisha de Haas as Big Bertha Smith - Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

Aisha de Haas as Big Bertha Smith - Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

The story of Josephine Baker’s life is complex and riveting.  A bleak childhood on the mean 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 who teach her the ropes and whisk her off with her mama’s approval to play black vaudeville houses on ‘The Sharecropper’s Circuit’.

As Josephine Baker, Zurin Villanueva (who last tread the local boards in Crowns at Arena Stage) has all the right sass as she taps, struts and slinks into your heart with the ferocity of a lioness, capturing Baker’s persona from gangly teen to the toast of Paris.  Her sinuous interpretation of Baker’s notorious banana dance in a skirt of the waxy fruit 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 she 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.

With smooth Astaire-like steps, precise and lightening quick, and a tender soulful voice in his rendering of the song “Never Thought I’d Find You Tonight”, James T. Lane displays elegant restraint playing both Eddie, Baker’s first love, and Paul, her Parisian Pygmalion, who introduces Josephine to a life of luxury and sophistication.

Zurin Villanueva and James T. Lane as Josephine Baker and husband Eddie Baker - Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

Zurin Villanueva and James T. Lane as Josephine Baker and husband Eddie Baker - Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography

The small adaptive cast is rounded out by the high-energy super-adorable Debra Walton (Broadway veteran of Ain’t Misbehavin’) and the old-school cool James Alexander.

Settle in for more than two dozen terrific toe-tapping numbers backed by arranger, conductor and pianist David Alan Bunn and a five-piece band whose members have played for the greatest names in the music business 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.

Through March 18th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

 

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