Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
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 stagea few performance areas, a bandstand for the five musicians at the backwith 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.