Saturday, 29 April 2017

SCENTS OF JOSEPHINE / Bellepoque / Review

Black Box @ Drama Centre
Thursday (27 April 2017)

To do justice to a well-loved historical personality within a production of 90 minutes is a tall order. All the more if that happened to be the multi-faceted artist that was America-born singer-dancer Josephine Baker (1906-1975) who made her fame and fortune in France.

Part of the Voilah! French Festival, Scents Of Josephine was not a musical, but a play by Singapore-based French playwright Marc Goldberg with musical pieces running through its thread. Baker does not appear as a character, instead her life and legacy were mirrored by four women in the form of a backstage discussion.

Reflections of Josephine might also have been an apt title, but the audience got many whiffs and wafts of Baker, which made much sense of Scents. While none of the women remotely resembled the sexy and seductive African-American waif in her prime, but their totally riveting story-telling hit the mark.

An air of informality presided over Samzy Jo's stage direction, and the audience unsuspectingly becoming eavesdroppers on the foursome. British Afro-Caribbean actress Sharon Frese had the only non-singing part, and she immediately broke the ice by raising the topic of race, illustrated by the irony of black women straightening their hair and lightening their skin to appear whiter.

With race out in the open, there was scope to discuss gender, sexual orientation, social status, equality, human rights and other seemingly contentious subjects. Baker was a woman ahead of her time, breaking all barriers in her performances, dances, costumes and alternative lifestyles. She was an icon like today's Madonna, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Kardashians all rolled into one.

The three vocalists provided different vistas to Baker's personality. French jazz singer Andayoma portrayed strength and resilience, Singaporean musical theatre singer Caitanya Tan oozed youthfulness and sexuality, while Italian operatic soprano Sabrina Zuber exposed frailty and vulnerability.

The songs, well-chosen and neatly dovetailed ino the script, ran the gamut from American musical theatre (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin), Latino hits (Besame Mucho, Brasil) to French chansons (Trenet, Scotto, Misraki). The “orchestra” provided by Robert Casteels (piano), Viviane Salin (violin) and Balraj Gopal (synthesiser guitar) also included a segment of Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring to depict Baker shocking her German audiences.

An attempt to include Singapore into the framework was mercifully limited to few Singlish phrases, but there was a comical scene when 1930s news snippets on Baker in The Straits Times were quoted. The audience also learns that a 1938 world tour (including Singapore) was unfortunately cancelled just before the outbreak of war.

The singularly most gripping scene was Frese reliving Baker's 1963 speech alongside Martin Luther King in his Civil Rights Movement march on Washington D.C., a veritable showstopper. What about Baker's infamously skimpy “skirt of bananas”? It finally made an appearance in the final ensemble song Feeling Like A Million, on a more than adequately covered Caitanya Tan. Was this a case of “less flesh please, we're Singaporeans”?

Playwright Marc Goldberg speaks.
 Photographs by the kind permission of Bellepoque.

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