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Emerging Artists Theatre Presents "The Sensational Josephine Baker" at the Beckett Theatre
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Emerging Artists Theatre Presents "The Sensational Josephine Baker" at the Beckett Theatre

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Emerging Artists Theatre

The Sensational Josephine Baker

Written and Performed by Cheryl Howard
Directed by Ian Streicher

At the
Beckett Theatre
(Theatre Row Website)
410 West 42nd Street

Musical Director/Supervisor, Composer,
Lyricist-Original Music: Loren Van Brenk
Scenic Designer: Tim McMath
Costume Designer: Nicole Wee
Lighting Designer/Production Manager:
G. Benjamin Swope
Projections Designer: David Bengali
Audio Engineer/Sound Designer: Aaron Blank
Production Stage Manager: Julie A. Feltman
Technical Director: Marcus Paminger
Arranger/Lead Orchestrator: Tom Anderson
Choreographer: Racky Plews
Public Relations: Charles Rice-Gonzalez

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 2, 2012 Matinee

Josephine Baker is one of the most fascinating divas of yore, a dancer/singer/raconteur, born in St. Louis in 1906, who died in Paris in 1975. Cheryl Howard has fashioned a unique take on Josephine Baker’s life and music, now playing at the Beckett at Theatre Row, presented by Emerging Artists Theatre. The stage props and shifting costumes are many, headpieces with feathers, glasses, scarves, chair, men’s pants, child’s overalls, a shimmering gown, heels, and much more. The rear stage is set with dozens of boxes, upon which David Bengali’s slide photos of Ms. Baker in shows and at leisure are projected. The music, unfortunately, is a recording of six musicians, listed in the program. It appeared that the producers intended a live accompaniment, but had to settle for digital.

But, Ms. Howard rose to the occasion, keeping Ms. Baker the constant focus, and what a character Ms. Baker can be. Ms. Howard was, at once, Ms. Baker as a child, a youthful performer, and a woman in her prime, on the eve of her “comeback” at Bobino Theatre in Paris. Ms. Howard also portrayed Baker’s own mother, her own grandmother, a tap dancer named Lydia Jones, her own white lover, celebrities that Ms. Baker met in Paris, those with whom she performed, and those that she’d rather forget. There is dialogue, all written by Ms. Howard, that generates pathos, for the racial and sexual abuse Ms. Baker suffered, with Americans unable to accept Ms. Baker’s relationship with a white man in the entertainment world, and with Parisian nightclub owners who had earlier abused their power, emotionally and sexually. Ms. Howard portrayed a tough survivor, one with incredible generosity (she adopted 12 children of multicultural births) and one with a lifelong passion for the stage. It was that very passion that drove Ms. Baker to her 1975 comeback in Paris, in an effort to pay her rent and save her children’s home.

Of the dozen or more songs that Ms. Howard performs, my favorites were “My Paris” (Loren Van Brenk), “Who” (Kern, Hammerstein II, Harbach), “J’ai Deux Amours” (Scotto, Koger, Varna), and “Paris, Paname” (Lopez, Vincy). Tom Anderson and Scott Woolley arranged the songs, sometimes also with Tom Anderson and/or Andy Duncan. Music Director is Loren Van Brenk. Ian Streicher directs this one-woman show for tight timing, in spite of the many quick prop or costume changes. It was amazing that Ms. Howard could keep her posture, accent, and affect in line, as she seamlessly shifted form Ms. Baker, at various ages, to such a wide variety of supplemental characters. Ms. Howard’s concentration and much advance practice were evident. Racky Plews designed Ms. Baker’s choreographic bits, while Tim McMath created the set, the high point of which was during the final minutes of the show, when Ms. Baker slinked out for her Bobino Theatre comeback, through a stunning stairway and lights. Nicole Wee designed the scintillating silver costume for that bravura entrance. Kudos to Cheryl Howard, and kudos to Josephine Baker.

Coincidentally, a restaurant, called Chez Josephine, an homage to Ms. Baker, is located right on West 42nd Street, next door to this show. Jean-Claude Baker, one of Ms. Baker’s adopted sons, is the proprietor and host of this renowned dining destination, which prides itself on paintings of Ms. Baker and live musical entertainment.

Cheryl Howard as Josephine Baker
in "The Sensational Josephine Baker"
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg

Jean-Claude Baker with Sarah McLawler
and Jean Davis on Piano and Vocals
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Chez Josephine Manager
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Joseph K. Douglas, Piano Player
at the door of Chez Josephine
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at