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More Than A Banana Dance, Deborah Cox Is Josephine Baker

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III 

When you hear the name Josephine Baker, a few things come to people’s mind, such as banana, dance or french ingenue. However, she was so much more than something pretty for people to gawk at. The actress, singer, dancer broke barriers and blurred color lines with her success overseas becoming one of the most decorated entertainers of her time. With a story like that, this show can’t just be done small scale. “You have to really visualize, you really have to see—you have to be in the room. It deserves a Broadway stage,” says Deborah Cox, the Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling recording singer/actress embodying Josephine Baker in Asolo Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of the new musical Josephine. “She is one of our icons and that deserves recognition.”

Deborah Cox in Asolo Rep's production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III

Deborah Cox in Asolo Rep’s production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo III

The new musical revolves around Baker’s stint as the star of the Folies-Bergere in Paris from 1939-45, her scandalous affair with Swedish Crown Prince Gustav IV, and her service in the French Resistance during World War II. Featuring a book by Ellen Weston and Mark Hampton; music by Stephen Dorff; and lyrics by Emmy Award winner John Bettis, with direction and choreography by two-time Tony Award nominee Joey McKneely.

Broadway Black recently sat down with Ms. Cox to talk about Josephine’s legacy, what she hopes for Josephine’s future, and why she’s an “unsung hero.”

Broadway Black: Why did you choose to take on this project?

Deborah Cox: Well because I was going to be originating the role. I pick roles and I chose projects that I’m passionate about and this one has been near to my heart for a long time. And because I think that the story is one coming of age story that really changed the game of her time. A black woman, a woman who’s fearless, head on, and faced all types of adversity and became selfless, became this war hero. There’s just so many things we learn about her character and her vision for herself and of herself that I don’t think has ever been captured in a production.

BB: Josephine is really known for her dancing and I imagine the role is physically challenging, how did you prepare for that?

DC: I did a lot of pilates, a lot of ballet (laughs). Normally if I have a show I don’t have to warm up an hour before. I can do 20 minutes and be good. With this show, I have to warm-up and hour before because I’m a dancer now and I have to think like a dancer.

BB: So have you found anything that you found shocking, or something you and Josephine had in common?

DC: I feel like there was so much emphasis on banana dance and those sorts of things. We all know she used her sexuality but she did so, to get certain things done. She knew that it was going to distract people, but it was very clever because she got a lot of things accomplished and it was right under their noses. I think that is a testament to this woman’s fearlessness and ferociousness. To be able to go out and singlehandedly do so many things to get her point across, to access her vision. What she felt for humanity, human rights, and civil rights— knowing she came from such poverty here in the US. Even her rise to stardom in such a short time and the things she accomplished in that time. She was a pilot — I mean she was a pilot for God’s sake! Most people don’t know, she came back [from France] and spoke in Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. 

Cast of Asolo Rep's production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo II

Cast of Asolo Rep’s production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Paul Tate dePoo II

BB: Right? And an international spy!

DC: Yeah! You know, I’m just in awe of her legacy and what she’s done and in that time.

BB: Baker had an amazing career and she reached international success and you’ve also done the same with your music career. You’ve also landed roles on Broadway in Aida and Jekyll and Hyde and you’re doing The Bodyguard musical this summer. What made you want to pursue musical theater?

DC: Well a lot of people don’t know that’s where I started. I went to a performing arts high school and I did tons of productions like Oliver and Mama I Wanna Sing, where I started in the chorus and this was all before I had my recording career. I’ve paid my dues. I always had an affinity for musicals. For all of it: singing, acting, and dancing. I fell in love with shows like “Fame” where they showed off these triple threats. So in the interim while doing regional productions, I was also working on my demo to get a recording deal and I got the opportunity to sing background and then it just snowballed from there.

I think it’s also tough to find projects that fit you, that you can really shine in and I think this story, in particular, has all the attributes of that just a compelling well written story. You know, it has all the makings of a compelling Broadway musical because the spectacle and it shows the essence of Josephine, she was larger than life. Her persona was just electrifying. Harry Belafonte came to our reading and said he’d known her and said we really captured the essence of the woman.

I was so nervous about creating this caricature, I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to have the essence of her, so having someone who knew her say that made it that much of an honor.

Deborah Cox in Asolo Rep's production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman

Deborah Cox in Asolo Rep’s production of JOSEPHINE. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman

BB: Josephine had a hard time for her style of dance being too risqué and today there is a lot of respectability about what women can and can’t do with their body and expressing their sexuality but I feel like Josephine truly embraced her sexuality in a way that was transcending. What is it that you think makes her so confident and in turn where does your inner confidence come from?

DC: I just lose myself in the art. I find when I’m having the most fun, that’s when I’m my most uninhibited. And for her I think she just loved performing, she loved dancing. She saw herself as a work of art. Art is something that is not profound, you cant even put it into words what art means. In a way, she just created this idea that this black woman from way across the pond was creating art in her own unique way. That’s what drew people to her.

BB: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

DC: Knowing whatever the dream is, no matter how big the dream is to be inspired and know you’re going to have to fight for the dream. That’swhat Josephine did. She fought to not go back to that poverty and to continue to live.

BB: Besides Josephine and The Bodyguard, is there a dream role you have that you haven’t done yet?

DC: Oh my gosh. I’m doing it now. I couldn’t think of anything else. Josephine is one of the unsung heroes. Someone who never got her just due here.

Josephine will run until May 29 at Asolo Rep Theatre’s Mertz Theatre (5555 N. Tamiami Tr.  Sarasota, FL  34243). Tickets are now available for purchase here.

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We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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groundhog day

What if you had to relive the same day over and over and over AND over again? Would you try something new every time to get a different outcome? Would you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to stop it? Now a two-time Olivier Award-winning new musical, Groundhog Day takes us on a whirlwind of adventure and misery through the eyes of a jaded weatherman forced to relive the same day, every day.

Funny enough, Groundhog Day is actually based on a film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, and co-written by the show’s book writer Danny Rubin, about a weatherman caught in time and forced to relive the same day over and over and over again.

The concept seemingly feels like dangerous ground for a musical or a play, for that matter, as it forces the audience to watch the same moments over and over AND over again. Yet, somehow Groundhog Day manages to make what could be dangerous territory and turn it into a brilliant masterpiece of a musical. Largely in part to the catchy, fun music of the brilliant Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day makes deja vu seem kinda… cool.

Like the 1993 film, we meet our snarky protagonist Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction of spring, as predicted by “Phil the Groundhog.” Naturally, Phil feels nothing but disdain for the ritual, Punxsutawney, and everyone who celebrates it, including his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who he tries to woo while acting like a complete prick to her.

As the Groundhog Day version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Connors needs to deal with the consequences of his terrible, often hilarious, actions. Cue the deja vu, where he must relive the same day over and over.

While he initially spends his days in self-loathing, also encountering a massive groundhog mascot that hilariously hits him on the head as he passes by every day (and he totally deserves it too), he eventually comes to his senses and looks to turning over a new leaf as he tries to win Rita over.

But not before indulging in his share of booze, women, and crime. Repeatedly, of course.

Image result for groundhog day musicalKarl’s charm really comes to play here, as we can easily grow to hate Phil Connors. After all, he’s literally the worst. Yet somehow, watching him suffer this forever purgatory, you can’t help but both root for his liberation and also hope he’s stuck there for all eternity. Karl’s performance in the West End run of the show earned him an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical last week.

It helps that Broadway newcomer Barrett Doss is an excellent match for Karl, their chemistry undeniable, like her talent. The role (and some of the songs) hint that she’s more than the boring, hard-working producer that we’re led to believe (largely in part to her interactions with Connors), but, underneath the surface, a quirkier soul searching for love. Doss plays that side of Rita with enormous heart and playful charm and wit.

The show also offers a few solos of other Punxsutawney citizens, who express their own joys, worries, and troubles of life in the small town.

Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, Rob Howell (set design), Hugh Vanstone (light design), Paul Kieve (illusions), and Peter Darling (choreography) prove that when the creative team shares the same vision, magic can happen, as evident in the first act’s amazing car-chase number with Phil, two idiot bar patrons, and the Punxsutawney police — one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen on Broadway since … everything in Matilda, which featured the same creative team behind this musical.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Groundhog Day, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind being stuck in a suburban purgatory with Phil and company again… and again.

Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre.

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The World is Wide Enough: Hamilton Second National Tour to Begin February 2018

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Only days after launching the first national tour of Hamilton last week, producer Jeffrey Sellers announced that a second national tour will kick off in Seattle starting February 2018. After a six-week engagement, the tour will travel to Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; Costa Mesa, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Des Moines, Iowa; Cleveland, Ohio; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The second touring company will be the fourth Hamilton production to play concurrently in the U.S. Joining the first national tour (currently in San Fransisco before moving to L.A later this summer), the sit-down production in Chicago (which started September  2016), and the current Broadway production, with a London staging debuting in November of this year.

In a press statement, Seller comments:

“Beginning in 2018 more than 8,000 people a night will have the opportunity to see the show somewhere in North America. Indeed, Hamilton is for everyone. There has been tremendous interest in the show from markets across the country. The best way to get the show in front of as many people as possible is to form a new company to crisscross the country.”

The cast has yet to be announced, but keep checking into Broadway Black to be the first in the know!

Visit Hamilton for more information.

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Montego Glover Set for The New York Pops at Feinstein’s/54 Below

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Tony nominees Montego Glover, last seen in The Royale at Lincoln Center, and Tony Yazbeck  are set to star with The New York Pops in a  cabaret performance at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City  on September 19 to perform some of their favorite show tunes. Tony Yazbeck replaces the previously announced Joshua Henry. The event, described as “an intimate evening of dining and entertainment” will be led by Pops music director Steven Reineke.

“The New York Pops annual cabaret evening is one of our most intimate and exciting events each year,” said Reineke in a statement. “The event raises money for our vital music education programs, which reach thousands of New York City children each year. Montego and Tony are both extremely talented (and busy) performers, and they are extraordinarily kind and generous people. We are all looking forward to hearing them perform up close and personal. This is going to be a tremendous night.”

All proceeds will support The New York Pops’ PopsEd music programs, which reach over 4,000 New York City students each year.

Single tickets range from $275-$500 and ticket packages begin at $2,500. To purchase, visit www.newyorkpops.org or call 212-765-7677.

 

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Events and Happenings

Broadway Black Stars Take Part In The Covenant House Annual Sleep Out

Kristen Martin

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The Broadway Edition of  The Covenant House Sleep Out is quickly approaching! This year’s goal is $350,000 in service to 51,000 youth as some of our Broadway Black stars take part in Covenant House Sleep Out–Audra McDonald (Executive board member at Covenant House), Adrienne Warren (Shuffle Along), Broadway Serves.

The Sleep Out Movement established by the Covenant House, is a movement that occurs across the US and Canada. Men and women of various lifestyles and professions meet with a cardboard box, sleeping bag, and compassionate heart, to sleep on the street for one night. The movement is comprised of several themed editions such as: Mother’s Edition, Young Professional Edition, Executive Edition, Student Edition and Corporate Edition.

Over the years, the donations and funds received from the Sleep Outs have allowed Covenant House to remain a safe haven for homeless youth. To date, the Sleep Out Movement has raised over $20 million. 

The Sleep Out is not organized to pretend to be homeless. In fact, here’s Audra McDonald’s (Shuffle Along) explanation of the movement, as told to Covenant House:

Our goal for the Sleep Out is not to pretend we are homeless, but to raise money that goes directly for food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, education, job training, and short and long-term housing for homeless kids.

The hope is to raise awareness and demonstrate love toward the children who are without a home. In doing so, sleeping on the streets for one night will extend compassion to the children who are alone.

In 2014, Broadway sleepers sang a riveting impromptu rendition of “Lean on Me” to the kids at the crisis center.

There are also a few fun incentives by joining the movement such as the chance to:

  1. See Hamilton!
  2. Get a personal video from Queen Audra!
  3. Receive memorabilia from Shuffle Along!

To participate in the Covenant House Sleep Out Movement (Broadway Edition), register here.

The event will take place outside the NYC Covenant House (460 West 41st Street New York, NY 10036)  on August 15 from 7pm-7am with several meetings, interactions with former homeless youth and who knows, maybe another impromptu performance.  

 

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Liesl Tommy Is Back With Party People At The Public This Fall

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Liesl Tommy is back! And as we know, she’s no stranger to making the type of theatre that challenges our way of thinking . This time she’s tackling the importance of two influential social groups directing the New York Premiere of Party People, making it’s way to Anspacher Theater at The Public, starting November 1st through December.

Directed and Developed by Tommy, along with Universes, an award-winning ensemble known for their fusion of theater, poetry, jazz, hip-hop, politics, down home blues and Spanish boleros,  Party People is a “high-energy, infectious mix of theatre, poetry, jazz, blues, hip-hop, boleros and salsa as Universes digs into the story and legacy of an American revolution.”

Universes created Party People based on dozens of interviews with members of the ground-breaking, society-changing groups, Black Panthers and Puerto Rican Young Lords. Party People imagines a present-day reunion at an art opening curated by two young counter culturalists; but the curators themselves have complex relationships with the Party members, who fought injustice and provided free food and medical care for their communities—often at the expense of the people who loved them most. Old wounds and generational divides collide in this astonishing, multi-media theatrical event about the price of being a revolutionary, and what it means for those who come after.

Breaking the bounds of the expected, the members of Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz aka Ninja) and Liesl Tommy —invite audiences of every age, color and creed to join them as they continue to revolutionize American theater and explore the fight to bring power to the people, and the people to power.

Tickets for members of The Public Theater start at $25 – $50. Non-Member tickets starts at $60 + fees. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the site here, calling 212.967.7555 , or at the box office (425 Lafayette Street New York, NY 10003).

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Joshua Henry Joins Hamilton in Chicago

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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WON’T HE DO IT!

When one door closes, God surely opens an even BIGGER one, can I get an Amen? Two-time Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry joins the Chicago company of Hamilton: The Musical in Chicago as “Aaron Burr”, it was announced earlier today. Henry  just concluded the Broadway run of Shuffle Along where he created the role of “Noble Sissle.” Henry, who made his Broadway debut in Lin Manual-Miranda’s In The Heights , received Tony Award nominations for his roles in The Scottsboro Boys and Violet.

#AaronBurr @hamiltonmusical #grateful #Chicago

A video posted by Joshua Henry (@joshuahenrynyc) on

Additional casting announced Jonathan Kirkland, who recently appeared in the Encores production of Cabin in Sky, is slated to play “George Washington.”

As we previously announced Wallace Smith and Samantha Marie Ware joined the cast as  “Hercules Mulligan/James Madison” and “Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds” respectively.

The rest of the principal cast includes Miguel Cervantes (Alexander Hamilton), Ari Afsar (Eliza Hamilton), Alexander Gemignani (King George III), Chris Lee (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Joseph Morales (Alternate Hamilton), Jose Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton). This also marks Tony Award winner Karen Olivo’s return to the stage as Angelica Schuyler, after a two-year hiatus to teach in Wisconsin.

Rounding out the cast is ensemble members  Sam Aberman, Jose Amore, Amber Ardolino, Remmie Bourgeoise, Chloe Campbell, Joseph Chaikin, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, John Michael Fiumara, Jean Godsend Floridan, Aaron Gordon, Jin Ha, Holly James, Malik Kitchen, Colby Lewis, Dash Mitchell, Justice Moore, Samantha Pollino, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Gabriella Sorrentino and Aubin Wise.

How awesome is it that we’ll have Joshua and Brandon playing the same role, at THE SAME TIME (different cities) for a change. As we know, the two actors are often each other’s replacements and for the first time Shuffle Along allowed them to work along side one another.

If you didn’t get those tickets before, now is the time to figure out how you can be in the room where it happens.

Performances begin September 27 at the PrivateBank Theatre.

 

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