Josephine Baker Reborn
Opening tomorrow at the Alexander Kasser Theatre in Montclair is "Looking for Josephine." The Jazz performance is based on an African-American artist who fled the U.S. for Europe during the decades of Jim Crow segregation.
The most glamorous of these was Josephine Baker (1906-75). Born into poverty in St. Louis but transformed into a star of Jazz Age Paris, Baker created a sensation performing topless in the daring 1925 "Revue Negre." Acquiring a cult following as a singer and dancer, Baker earned medals as a hero of the French Resistance during World War II
Jerome Savary had created "Looking for Josephine,' which is a restaging of Baker's Parisian revue and is a tribute to African-American music.
The first act, set in New Orleans, recapitulates the history of American jazz. Act II attempts to re-create the dazzling mix of innocence, humor and sensuality with which Baker enlivened the stage
To mark the centennial Baker's birth at Paris' Opera-Comique in 2006, thats why the show had been staged. Nicolle Rochelle starred as Baker which was a hit that clocked more than 200 performances before touring the continent.
Rochelle now returns to her hometown with the production for its American premiere -- donning sparkling burlesque costumes to sing Baker's signature numbers like "J'ai Deux Amours" ("I Have Two Loves")
Most of Savary's cast's are American's, like co-choreographers Batten Bland and Brian Scott Bagley and tap dancers like Kendrick Jones and Jason Rodgers. The musicians mostly based in New Orleans.
Batten Bland, who grew up in New York and Los Angeles, says she was aware of Baker from an early age. "I have a huge forehead, and people used to call me 'Little Jo,' when I was a kid." As a child, Batten Bland says she imitated Baker's moves, copying steps and a way Baker had of pretending to topple forward but then recovering -- always in complete control. Now, Batten Bland says, she understands Baker's double-edged humor, which allowed her to exaggerate and undermine racial stereotypes
The choreographer says that today's stars still idolize Baker, as evidenced by the 2006 Fashion Rocks gala, when Beyonce Knowles appeared in Baker's trademark banana skirt (a design originally suggested by Jean Cocteau)