Peggy Lee and Lena Horne lived long enough to star in their own bio-musicals; Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and Dinah Washington became theatrical subjects only after their deaths. Either way, the resulting shows — some marvelous, some awful — were mostly tarted-up cabaret acts of the then-I-sang-then-I-screwed variety, with an emphasis on the translation of pain into art. If Josephine Baker has been oddly absent from the parade, perhaps it’s because her life, even by the standards of those other drama queens, was just too astonishing to fit the format. She married three times, starting at 13; was an international star by 20; palled around Paris with the Hemingway crowd; spied for the French resistance in World War II; and was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. Nevertheless, Cush Jumbo, the young British actress recently seen here opposite Hugh Jackman in The River and as Marc Antony in the Donmar’s all-female Julius Caesar, has set out to tell Baker’s story in, yes, a tarted-up cabaret act, albeit a very ambitious one she calls Josephine and I. That turns out to be one diva too many, especially when the former is improbably rendered less interesting than the latter.
Jumbo is a delicious performer: a gifted mimic, a fine dancer, a capable singer, and a stunning woman. As was evident from The River, she’s absolutely credible putting across almost any kind of cockamamie story. Josephine and I begins with her own: She arrives in a tizzy — after her accompanist and musical director, Joseph Atkins, has played the skimpy overture twice — offering the excuse that she has come from a final callback for a major role on a television show. This is presumably concocted, though you couldn’t tell from her fully invested rendering of it. And therein lies the problem. Over the next two hours, as she alternates between a by-the-numbers outline of Baker’s biography and a rather more vivid fictionalization of her own, you may come to feel cheated by both.
At the same time, you see what she’s up to. Baker, Jumbo tells us, has been a lifelong obsession. (She produces as evidence a banged-up Tiny Tears doll, painted brown and decorated with homemade Baker regalia.) But whereas Baker’s glamour and courage may have been the traits that inspired Jumbo as a child growing up in London, now, approaching 30, she is beginning to identify more with Baker’s struggles. There is, for instance, the question of children, which Baker solved by adopting a “Rainbow Tribe” of twelve international urchins. But if Jumbo and her ecologist boyfriend were to become parents, could they live, she wonders, on “Shakespeare and compost”? Or should she make success her priority, taking any job offered, no matter how degrading? (In one hilarious vignette she describes being asked to audition for a role as if she were an American, then as if she were a “blacker” American.) Here, Jumbo finds guidance in her idol’s refusal to perform for non-integrated audiences. Perhaps it is a bit unseemly for a heralded young actor in 2015 to compare her struggles to those of Baker, who, after all, had to make her name doing a seminude “jungle” dance in a banana skirt. But Jumbo wants to demonstrate that things haven’t changed as much as we may think, and at any rate is so likable performing her falsified autobiography that we are willing to let that pass.
It’s the biographical material that feels, though true, theatrically undercooked. Baker’s sensational artistry is more described than demonstrated, and when demonstrated fails to astonish. (The songs, mostly period novelties like “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes,” do not hold up, and the dancing, confined to the tiny Joe’s Pub stage and performed with no backup, barely seems worthy of the fuss it once caused.) Phyllida Lloyd’s direction doesn’t help. Her attempts to open up the action with meta-intrusions and audience participation mostly prove awkward and unrevelatory. Nor are the staging clichés of the bio-musical avoided: archival footage, a box of props. And must we really have Jumbo pumping her elbows in a locomotive gesture, as “train music” plays, to indicate that Baker is on tour?
In fairness, it must be said that the writing about Baker also brims with clichés. As a result this fascinating woman is not much more alive to us than her Tiny Tears effigy. Luckily, Cush Jumbo is fabulous as herself, even if fabulizing. It’s not often one wants to say this to an actor, but more “I,” please.
Josephine and I is at Joe’s Pub through April 5.