Palpable admiration for the subject can’t save Cheryl Howard’s cliché-ridden solo show about Josephine Baker. Howard—who starred as the African-American legend in a European musical some 20-odd years ago—exhibits none of her idol’s humor, sexiness or magnetism as she dutifully recounts her journey from abused St. Louis adolescent to the toast of Paris.
Like many bio-shows about famous divas (End of the Rainbow, Marlene), The Sensational Josephine Baker takes place later in life as the down-on-her-luck performer prepares for a comeback concert. After Baker confesses her fear of failure, the play flashes back to her unhappy childhood and proceeds chronologically, peppering in signature songs (“J’ai Deux Amours”), evocative projections by David Bengali and salient details (her exhibitionism, her triumph in Les Folies Bergère, her famous friends, her bisexuality), while completely skipping over some of her more amazing accomplishments (not a peep about her work with the French Resistance during WWII, and her “rainbow tribe” of 12 adopted children is reduced to one throwaway line).
Although Howard purports to delve into the star’s psyche, Baker’s skimpy costumes were way more revealing than anything here. However, the material does come alive whenever the performer portrays Baker’s family and associates. She’s particularly good as Baker’s neglectful mother and captivating as Miss Lydia Jones, a curmudgeonly former chorus girl who recalls her rival’s success with bitterness and surprising insight. Now there’s a character who deserves her own spotlight.—Raven Snook