Josephine Baker lived one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century. Born in poverty and married briefly at age 13, she was effectively banished from the United States because of racism, but became the biggest star Europe had ever seen. Celebrated for her eroticism, beauty and talent, she was courted by kings. She became active in the French Resistance during World War II, smuggling secret messages written on her sheet music in invisible ink. She returned to America, where she faced and fought the racism she experienced here. She spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, immediately before Martin Luther King delivered his "I Had a Dream" speech. She adopted 11 children of various races and died bankrupt.
That life, or at least a significant part of it, is the subject "Josephine," a musical that's getting its world premiere this month from Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.
The production, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, is dazzling, with a parade of beautiful sets by Paul Tate dePoo III, countless opulent costumes by Eduardo Sicangco and impeccable light and sound design by Brian Nason and Justin Stasiw, respectively.
R&B-pop recording artist Deborah Cox, who had the title role in Elton John's "Aida" on Broadway for about six months, makes a magnetic Josephine, and Kevin Earley is at least her equal as Jo Bouillon, her orchestra leader who was semi-secretly in love with her for many years.
A couple of the best performances come from area actors. St. Petersburg's Matthew McGee is delightfully entertaining, as usual, in his comic role as Joujou, Baker's devoted but bedraggled personal assistant, and Sarasota's 11-year-old Tori Bates steals several scenes as young Josephine.
The story centers around Baker's life in Paris from about 1939 to 1945. She's a major star and very wealthy and
begins an affair with the King of Sweden, who is married and refuses to be seen in public with Josephine. Nazis occupy Baker's mansion and pretty much everything she owns, and she has to rebuild her career after the war.
The show's packed with great songs by composer Stephen Dorff and lyricist John Bettis, performed by the cast and a great 11-piece pit orchestra. The music is all new, with no songs from the period or songs that Baker was known for. They even give Baker a fictitious signature song, "Est-ce Que C'Est Vous," which is actually one of the weakest songs in the whole show. An audience favorite was the powerful comic blues number "Nobody's Listenin'," delivered charismatically by Lynette DuPree as Bricktop.)
"Josephine" is billed by the Asolo as "Broadway-bound," and McKneely called it "a pre-Broadway tryout." It already has the look and sound of a Broadway hit.
For all its sparkle, though, and despite all those amazing performances and songs that stick with you for days, there's something missing: The book, by Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton, is more interesting than involving. We don't feel tension when Baker is being held by Nazis, we don't feel pain when she's treated badly by a lover, we don't feel a tug on our heartstrings when her love story finally blossoms.
Part of the problem is that Baker, as depicted by Weston and Hampton, is not especially nice. She's self-absorbed and she treats the people who care about her badly. She's brave, bold and admirable, but not very likeable. The show also lacks a focus, and feels like a collection of subplots rather than a cohesive story.
Still, the opening night audience cheered at every song and gave an enthusiastic standing ovation for every performer. Some significant changes were made to the show during its Asolo preview performances, and with not too many more "Josephine" could turn out to be a major Broadway hit that began its life right here.
Details: Through May 29, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $15.50-$108. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.