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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Josephine Tonight

Josephine Tonight
James Alexander, James T. Lane, Zurin Villanueva, Aisha de Haas and Debra Walton
MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, has the benefit of Broadway-caliber talent—beginning with director-choreographer Maurice Hines, a Helen Hayes Award recipient for an earlier MetroStage musical, Cool Papa's Party—in its premiere production of Josephine Tonight, an intimate musical about the early career of famed chanteuse Josephine Baker. The dancing and other theatrical movement are the highlights of a show that is still a work in progress: a modern-dress framing device opens the show and never reappears, and some of the songs just wind down without ever really ending.

Authors Sherman Yellen (book and lyrics) and Wally Harper (music) follow Josie (Zurin Villanueva) as she searches for success and love, beginning as a young teenager dancing for pennies in the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois, and working her way up through an apprenticeship with a black vaudeville troupe to Harlem and, eventually, stardom in Paris. Like the real Josephine, Villanueva is thin and gawky, showing off her thin legs in knockabout routines and crossing her eyes on occasion; she is utterly winning as she shows the progression from raw talent to incipient star quality.

Four versatile performers stand in for everyone in Josie's life, most notably the impassioned Aisha de Haas as the young performer's two role models: Carrie, Josie's hard-working mother, a laundress; and Bertha, the blowsy star of the vaudeville show that hires Josie. Limber, personable James T. Lane charms as both the down-home young man Josie marries and the worldly Frenchman who teaches her about the wonders of Paris, and James Alexander and Debra Walton take up the slack in numerous roles. (One bit of confusion: the fact that all the performers are African-American leads to intrusive bits of exposition, as when Walton, playing the American producer wanting to showcase Josie in Paris, has to describe herself as "a white woman.")

Klyph Stanford's evocative scenery and projection design maximizes the impact of a small stage—a few performance areas, a bandstand for the five musicians at the back—with glamorous black-and-white images of 1920s New York City and Paris. Reggie Ray has designed sumptuous costumes: increasingly elaborate dresses for Josie (leading up to a version of her iconic "banana skirt") and the range of shabby, proper, and showy costumes worn by the people in her orbit.

MetroStage
Josephine Tonight
January 26th - March 18th
Book and lyrics by Sherman Yellen
Music by Wally Harper
Josephine: Zurin Villanueva
Carrie/Bertha: Aisha de Haas
Eddie/Paul: James T. Lane
Father Jones and multiple roles: James Alexander
Mother Jones and multiple roles: Debra Walton
Directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines
1201 N. Royal St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
Ticket Information: 703-548-9044 or www.metrostage.org.


Photo: C. Stanley Photography


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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