The first—and major—mistake is the misdirection that stems from the three clichéd book songs by musical director Loren Van Brenk that now begin the proceedings. They tell the audience that this is to be a musical in which the songs dramatize character and forward the plot, but Howard and Streicher then abandon that vocabulary entirely, with the rest of the score consisting of existing period performance songs—such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (Eubie Blake–Noble Sissle) and "Who" (Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II–Otto Harbach)—whose dramatic functions are still too haphazard and whose placement still feels random. Worse, the all-important opening number, here "Eighty-Three Million Francs," concerns the fact that if Baker doesn't come up with the titular amount she will lose her home and have no place for her 12 adopted children to live. The problem is dropped after the song ends and never mentioned again. Openers should tell an audience, among other things, what a show is about. "The Sensational Josephine Baker" never fully recovers from this misstep, causing material that once played well to struggle for impact.
A second gaffe is the use of recorded music, in this case a six-person band playing the 11 instruments called for by Tom Anderson and Scot Woolley's overly ambitious arrangements. In Aaron Blank's sound design, the canned music is deadening, causing Howard to push too hard to generate the kind of visceral energy and excitement inherent in Baker's performing persona. The underscoring is frequently obtrusive, and the vamps that introduce the book songs—especially the opening number—are ill-suited to the dialogue, making the all-important transition from speech to song clunky rather than seamless.
Howard's script consists mostly of monologues or two-person conversations. She has a sharp eye for character but still hasn't found a successful structure. In fact, making the piece strictly linear seems to diminish it, and while cutting was necessary, too much detail has been lost in the process, causing what survives to feel more generic than it really is. As before, Baker's postwar years are largely ignored, though the show is told in flashback on the night of her death in 1975. The result is that it doesn't so much climax as simply stop.
Howard's work as an actor remains exceptional, if a bit coarsened by having to project into a considerably larger house while fighting against that tinny accompaniment. She delineates a wide range of vibrantly written characters of many ages and both sexes with skill and economy. Her musical performances evoke Baker's essence without slavishly copying her, particularly in the saucy (if a bit politically incorrect) "Don't Touch Me Tomato," by George Symonette, a welcome addition to the score.
Scenic designer Tim McMath's set of piled boxes is a bit baffling—though it accommodates David Bengali's atmospheric projections and video well enough—and the climactic scenic reveal is more cheesy than impressive. Indeed, one gets the sense that everybody needed a larger budget to execute their artistic intentions. I left with the overriding impression that Emerging Artists Theatre had made too many compromises in its production. If you can't afford to do things right, it is usually wiser either to recalibrate your goals or wait until you can.
Presented by Emerging Artists Theatre at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. June 28–Sept. 8. Tue., Thu.–Sat., 7 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com.