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Home > Current Buzz > Nicolle Rochelle from FAME on 42nd ST to Josephine Baker at Montclair State University
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Looking for Josephine — a musical tribute to Josephine Baker

by Joan Finn - August 27, 2009

Jedediah Wheeler’s biblical-sounding first name may be rooted in the past, but his vision for the performing arts in Montclair is both ground-breaking and forward-thinking.

Wheeler has been executive director of arts and cultural programming at Montclair State University for the past five years, and during that time has molded the university’s Alexander Kasser Theater into a showcase of innovative, entertaining and illuminating work.

As artistic director of "Peak Performances at Montclair," he has introduced some of the most challenging international artists to audiences at the Kasser Theater. And in keeping with that vision, he is staging the American premiere of "Looking for Josephine," Jerome Savary’s musical tribute to the glamorous song and dance goddess, Josephine Baker, in mid-September as one of the highlights of the 2009-2010 performing arts season at the Kasser.

Three years ago, Wheeler was scanning a copy of the International Herald Tribune and came across an advertisement for "Looking for Josephine." He had known the musical’s director, Jerome Savary, by reputation, and had seen his work before. Savary had been artistic director for many years at the Opera Comique in Paris, and had opened his theater to a project Wheeler was doing at the time: "One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof," a musical theater work by Philip Glass.

"What caught my eye was the story of Josephine Baker," Wheeler said. "Savary was not only telling the story of the song and dance legend, but was also retelling the story of Negro music in America and texturizing it to the recent hurricane in New Orleans. I sent him a note in an effort to get in touch, but he never replied."

Shortly afterward, Wheeler was talking to the artistic director of the Maison de la Danse in Leon, France, who said he was presenting Savary’s musical in his theater. "That’s all I need to know," Wheeler said, "just tell me how to contact him."

And so, more than a year ago, Wheeler flew to Paris, met with the producers, and started the ball rolling to bring "Looking for Josephine" to America.

"It’s such an important story," Wheeler told the Times. "Josephine Baker’s history along with the history of African-American music in America. Since that time, I have seen the production and it’s sincerely the most entertaining show Peak Performances has done in the past five years. Everyone in it is so talented. The Emcee is French and he’s on Joel Grey’s level of performance. The others are talented singers and dancers who have gone to Europe to further their careers."

Conceived and directed by Jerome Savary, "Looking for Josephine," has been playing to sold-out houses throughout Europe. Savary begins his revue in a New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina as a French producer searching for a performer to play Josephine Baker with whom to re-create "La Revue Negre," her legendary Parisian revue. When Baker found fame in Paris by performing her scandalous revue, she raised eyebrows as well as passions.

As the auditions begin, Savary conjures up the history of black music in America — classic jazz, boogie-woogie and blues — and weaves the success of that music, as a counterpoint to Baker’s story of racial conflict, into the musical legacy of this vibrant entertainer. Once the perfect Josephine is cast, "La Revue Negre" is staged as a spectacular extravaganza starring Nicolle Rochelle.

From the show’s vivacious master of ceremonies, to the energetic tap dancers, to the poignant blues songs, to the Bourbon Street Band, "Looking for Josephine" is an incomparable musical event.

Baker’s life (1906-1975) was equally eventful. She was born Josephine McDonald in East St. Louis, Ill., and later took the name of Baker from her second husband, Willie Baker, whom she married at age 15. Surviving the riots in 1917 in East St. Louis, where her family was living, Josephine ran away at age 13 and began dancing in vaudeville and on Broadway. In 1925, she fled to Paris, where she found fame by performing her scandalous "La Revue Negre," which showcased her comic ability and jazz dancing and brought her to the attention of the director of the Follies Begere.

Virtually an instant hit, Baker became one of the best-known entertainers in France and in much of Europe. Her exotic, sensual act reinforced the creative images coming out of the Harlem Renaissance in America at that time.

During World War II, she worked with the Red Cross, gathered intelligence for the French Resistance and entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. After the war, Baker adopted, with her second husband, 12 children from around the world, making her home a world village, a "showplace for brotherhood." She returned to the stage in the 1950s to finance this project.

In 1951, in the United States, Baker was refused service at the famous Stork Club in New York City. Yelling at columnist Walter Winchell, another patron of the club, for not coming to her assistance, she was accused by Winchell of communist and fascist sympathies. Never as popular in the United States as in Europe, she found herself fighting the rumors begun by Winchell as well. She responded by crusading for racial equality, refusing to entertain in any club that was not integrated, and thereby breaking the color ban at many establishments. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.

Baker’s world village fell apart in the 1950s and in 1969 she was evicted from her chateau in France, which was then auctioned off to pay debts. Princess Grace of Monaco later presented her with a villa to keep her world village intact. In 1973, Baker married an American, Robert Brady, and began her stage comeback.

In 1975, Baker’s Carnegie Hall comeback performance was a success, as was her subsequent Paris performance. But two days after her last Paris performance, she died of a stroke.

Portraying the role of Josephine Baker onstage is Nicolle Rochelle, a former Montclair resident and a graduate of Montclair High School. Nicolle, at age 5, told her parents she was "born to be a singer" and that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled.

Nicolle’s first big television roles included portraying the role of Tanya alongside of Ringo Starr on the PBS series, "Shining Time Station," and the role of Jessi in the HBO/Disney series, "The Baby Sitters." Other television credits include a recurring role on "The Cosby Show" and guest starring on "Law and Order," "NYPD Blue" and "Third Watch." In New York City, she played the lead role in the original New York cast of "Fame, the Musical" at the Little Shubert Theatre, and appeared as Princess Katherine opposite Liev Schreiber in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of "Henry V."

She has performed the role of Josephine Baker in "Looking for Josephine" to audiences in sold-out theaters throughout Europe and will be starring in the Peak Performances production opening at MSU’s Kasser Theater on Sept. 17.

"‘Looking for Josephine’ is as good as anything on Broadway today," commented Jed Wheeler, "and I’m proud to be bringing it to the United States for its American premiere here at the Kasser Theater in Montclair."

 

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