Josephine at the Marigny Opera House
Much as I hate to say it, but the beginning of 2022 for NOLA’s performing arts scene had a distinct air of déjà vu about it.
First, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra cancelled its concert The Hero’s Tragedy which was to feature Conductor Thomas Wilkins and David Anderson playing a contrabass concerto, something you don’t hear every day.
Then, New Orleans Opera (NOO) let its patrons know that the ballet portion of An Homage to Josephine Baker would not be performed due to a COVID outbreak within the company.
Fortunately, however, Josephine, the opera proceeded as planned to sold out audiences at the Marigny Opera House (NOO informed its ticket holders that the ballet’s final dress rehearsal had been videotaped and that they would soon be getting a link to the recording).
Tom Cipullo’s one-act opera about the great American-born French entertainer Josephine Baker (1906–1975) envisages her, at the end of her life, giving an interview to a reporter (seen but never heard) in her dressing room before her final performance. It’s an acceptable but hardly imaginative device with which to frame the work.
Alas, “acceptable but hardly imaginative” could describe much of the rest of Josephine. Cipullo, best known for his art songs, writes in a 20th century style of lush romantic music. It’s consistently pretty to listen to, but rarely rises to memorability or conveys Baker’s personality or emotional state (one notable exception being a harrowing passage during which she describes a horrific race riot in St. Louis where she grew up).
For such a larger-than-life icon like Baker, one would think that Cipullo might have included some coloratura ornamentation that could’ve better reflected her joie de vivre. As written, it’s kinda hard to believe that this was a woman who Hemingway and Picasso, among many others, swooned over.
Likewise, the libretto, also by Cipullo, could’ve used a little additional spice. Though based on some of Baker’s own writings (if I understood correctly from a post-performance talk) Cipullo could have employed rhyme schemes with a tad more je ne sais quoi than “true/do” and “see/me”.
As such, as it traces Baker’s life, Josephine has a somewhat generic feel to it (artist facing and overcoming challenges, public vs. private life, etc.) despite Baker’s recollection of having once fainted in General George Patton’s arms. I wish there had been more specific Baker-isms like “I had a very intelligent derriere. Most people’s are only good to sit on.”
One can only empathize with Director Lauren E. Turner who had less than two weeks of rehearsal time for this production. If her staging is mostly static, with Baker front and center, that’s understandable as Cipullo doesn’t give his star much to do.
Returning to the role that she has appeared in before, Laquita Mitchell sang beautifully with her velvety soprano voice, infusing with maternal warmth the section when Baker references her 12 children. Still, one can only imagine what a bona fide diva such as Kathleen Battle or the late Jessye Norman (who served as a mentor to Mitchell) might’ve done with this part.
The production’s strongest appeal came from the musicianship of Jeri Lynne Johnson whose conducting brought out all the colors of the score, and the small five-piece orchestra which performed excellently.
Though I wish I could’ve been more enthusiastic about Josephine, I tremendously admire the NOO for programming this new work and introducing it to New Orleans audiences. It sure beat yet another visit by one of those all too frequently seen divas like Carmen, Aida or Tosca.
[NOO’s next presentation will be its Gala Concert on February 11 and 13 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. The 90-minute performance will feature Maestro Robert Lyall conducting highlights from various operas with guest soloists Lauren Michelle, Emily Treigle, John Moore, and Chauncey Packer, who recently appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones. For tickets and more information, go to https://neworleansopera.org/gala-concert/]
As area theaters aim for a return to normalcy, shows have been announced for the coming weeks. The following are productions that are or will soon be running before Mardi Gras provides the greatest free show in town (fingers crossed). As always, best to check websites to confirm everything is still going according to plan.
Rivertown Theaters in Kenner continues its run (through Jan. 23) of the Kander & Ebb classic Cabaret which explores the dark, heady, and tumultuous life of Berlin’s natives and expatriates as Germany slowly yields to the emerging Third Reich. Director Bryce Slocumb’s cast includes Jake Wynne-Wilson as the uber-provocative Master of Ceremonies. (https://www.rivertowntheaters.com/event/Cabaret)
In the spring of 1955, Johnny Cash walked into the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis and the music world has never been the same. Not long afterward, Terry Lee Goffee put his first Cash record on a turntable and his world changed too. In World’s Greatest Johnny Cash Experience, Goffee promises to become Cash, from the moment he walks onstage until he takes his final bow.
Among the 34 songs that will be included in this 90-minute tribute show are such Cash classics as A Boy Named Sue, I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, and Folsom Prison Blues. Experience plays at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen on weekends January 21-30. (https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/worlds-greatest-johnny-cash-experience-terry-lee-goffee)
Directed by Tenaj Jackson, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, Jocelyn Bioh’s funny and touching portrayal of clique-y teenage girls at Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school, gets its regional premiere in a NOLA Project production at Loyola’s Marquette Theatre running February 3 through 17. (https://www.nolaproject.com/schoolgirls) [UPDATE: Due to the current Covid-19 case numbers in New Orleans and the high-transmissibility of the Omicron variant, The NOLA Project decided to postpone School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play. The new dates are June 15-July 1.]
Another show I’m looking forward to is Fly which tells the stories of four of the approximately 1,000 black airmen trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, who served in World War II as part of the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces. Written by Trey Ellis & Ricardo Khan and directed by Tommye Myrick, this JPAS production plays February 4-13 at Jefferson Performing Arts Center in Metairie. (https://www.jpas.org/performance/fly/)
Glide over to the Saenger Theatre and “let it go” when Frozen plays there February 10-20. Having never seen the movie nor the musical, I plan to lose my Frozen virginity next month. (https://www.saengernola.com/shows/disney’s-frozen)
Heading to the Northshore, a mystery awaits you at Playmakers Theater January 22-February 6. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s first novel, begins when Hastings is sent back to England from WWI due to injury and is invited to spend his sick leave at the beautiful Styles Court by his old friend John Cavendish. Despite the tranquil surroundings Hastings begins to realize that all is not right. After a murder, another old friend, Hercule Poirot, arrives to investigate. Whodunit? (https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/)
Slidell Little Theatre presents Blue February 4-13. Written by Charles Randolph-Wright with music by Nona Hendryx, Blue spans nearly twenty years in the lives of the Clarks, an affluent African American family in rural South Carolina. This humorous family portrait is directed by Kaula Johnson. (https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org/upcomingevents?pageid=167437)
And if you’re in the mood for some passionate dance, the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) kicks off its season with Tango Fire from Buenos Aires on January 22 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. This exhilarating dance spectacular “melds rawness and sophistication with the seductive and sultry.” Not a bad way to start off the new year, eh? (https://www.saengernola.com/shows/new-orleans-ballet-association-presents-tango-fire-at-the-mahalia-jackson-theater)