"Josephine and I " | Review at curtainup.com CurtainUp
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Josephine and I
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

— (lyrics to the song by Bob Dylan, as sung by Cush Jumbo
Cush Jumbo
Cush Jumbo (Photo: Joan Marcus
Josephine is Josephine Baker, the legendary African-American singer/dancer who left a prejudiced America to rein supreme in Paris and the continent as a symbol of the Jazz Age in the 1920's and 1930s. The I is Cush Jumbo, the talented British born black actress who impressed Broadway theatergoers in her brief role opposite Hugh Jackman in The River.

The very pretty Jumbo neither resembles her idol, nor sings as well as Baker, though she does cannily hit all the correct notes when she sings bits and pieces from "La Baker's" repertoire; and she makes it her point and purpose to be primarily adoring and admiring of the star whom she credits with being an inspiration and a symbol for her own life in show biz.

This entertaining showcase which Jumbo has written for herself is well-directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with great care to spotlight Jumbo's talent and her energized effervescence. Her show, originally produced at The Bush Theatre in London, does, however, come across as something of a jumble. It will prove a little perplexing for those who may not want to make all the connections between Baker's life and career and her own, loose or well-targeted as some of them are.

If I may digress a bit to share with you the time I saw Baker in person. It was 1951 when she began a cross-country tour following a hugely successful engagement at the Strand Theater on Broadway. One of her first post-Broadway stops was at the Branford Theater in Newark which made it possible for this New Jersey-raised writer to skip school, hop on a bus, and head for the theater where I sat through two complete stage shows and a film. Yes, this theater-obsessed teenager had heard of the Baker mystique and was completely mesmerized by her unique style and her repertoire of songs that she sang in many languages. Her many changes of extravagant gowns were also part of her incomparable act that I still remember. It left me a fan forever. Enough about Josephine and Me.

I suspect that there were some who were jammed into Joe's Pub on the night I attended who may also have first hand memories, but not many for sure. As for the rest, they were soon captivated by Jumbo, particularly by her heart-felt exuberance. If her show is admirably self-serving, it is also an unapologetic homage.

Jumbo does not reprise Baker's infamous "Banana Dance" as originally sung and danced topless in a Paris nightclub with only a skirt made of bananas, but she does sing and dance a little with the comical eccentricity that was Baker's style. She tells us plenty about the Missouri-born Baker, all the ups and downs of her career.

The life of the "Bronze Venus" has been well documented, and Jumbo does quite a neat job of sassily and smartly compressing the highlights of Baker's remarkable life: too many husbands and lovers to keep track of; the French chateau where she nurtured a dozen adopted children from around the world; her service as a French spy, and as an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jumbo's personal love life, her experiences with prejudice, and her frustrations with auditioning, hardly seem balanced against the pioneering efforts of Baker. However, we do enjoy the esprit with which their conjoined stories are told. . . and that outrageous feathered costume that Jumbo wears for her final number as she flutters through the audience tells us all that we really need to know about true idolatry and adulation.

As expertly accompanied on piano throughout by musical director Joseph Atkins, Jumbo ends her frenetic ninety-minute act with an impassioned rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" Indeed they are, but perhaps, as Jumbo infers, not quite fast enough.

Josephine and I
Written and Performed by Cush Jumbo

Scenic and Costume Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: Kate Ashton
Original Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Original Sound Design: Will Pickens
Original Film and Photographic Sequences: Ravi Deepres
Music Director and arrangements: Joseph Atkins
Production Stage Manager: Kristen Gibbs
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
212 - 539 - 8500
Tickets: $50.00
Performances: Tuesday through Sunday at 7 pm; Sunday matinees at 3 pm
From 02/27/15 Opened 03/10/15 Ends 04/05/15
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/11/15
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