Composer Harper, widely known as Barbara Cook's musical director — and a respected Broadway arranger — died in 2004, but not before completing work on this musical biography of showbiz legend Josephine Baker. His collaborator was librettist and lyricist Sherman Yellen (The Rothschilds), who survives him. Yellen's play December Fools recently premiered Off-Broadway.
Josephine Tonight! draws on the early life of the internationally known singer, actress and nightclub sensation who wowed audiences in America and Europe in first quarter of the 20th century.
Previews begin Feb 17. Opening is Feb. 20 (with a reception with cast and playwright). Performances continue to March 26.
Josephine Tonight! is billed as "a ragtime to riches journey from the Jim Crow South to Broadway during the Harlem Renaissance to Paris of the Jazz Age."
According to production notes, it "reveals the relationship of the young Josephine and her laundress mother Carrie, who steers her toward success and then guides her to remember her roots. The exciting new score goes from swinging ragtime to sultry jazz and gospel-inspired songs as Josephine Baker puts the 'sin' back into syncopation." Steve Scott directs. Jon Steinhagen is musical director and arranger. The non-Equity cast includes Wayne Carr, Miche'le Cason, Angela Ingersoll, Michael Ingersoll, Melanie McCullough, Senuwell Smith, Wynter Spears, LeKeya Stewart and Monique Whittington.
The creative team includes Gordon McClure (choreographer), Jessica Kuehnau (scenic designer), Tina Salamone (lighting designer), Elizabeth Shaffer (costumer) and Sydney Chatman (stage manager).
The new production is a Theatre Building Chicago studio presentation, a lean fully-produced staging "that focuses on the writing and the performance to give audiences the essence of this new musical."
Yellen and Harper collaborated on This Fair World, which was performed during Theatre Building Chicago's annual Stages 2002 festival of readings and productions.
Josephine Tonight! first appeared as Tumpie's Dance at Stages 2003 and was later performed in a concert version at the Chicago Festival of the Humanities.
Theatre Building Chicago artistic director John Sparks reflected on the history of his organization's relationship with Wally Harper: "Josephine Tonight! was first seen at Theatre Building Chicago in our Stages 2003 festival of new musicals [a mix of readings and full productions]. In the weeks leading up to that exciting debut for the show, my friend Sherman Yellen, the show's lyricist and librettist, introduced us to a life-changing experience — composer Wally Harper.
"Wally was perhaps best known around the world as Barbara Cook's musical director, but Broadway folk knew him as the genius behind many of Broadway's greatest musical moments. His vocal and dance arrangements, incidental music, dance music and music direction informed many of your favorite titles when they premiered or were revived on Broadway, including Company, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Grand Hotel, My One And Only, Nine, Brigadoon, A Day In Hollywood/A Night In The Ukraine, and many others.
"Wally was a consummate musician. His presence at the keyboard meant the performer he accompanied was in the safest and most graceful hands that ever supported a singing artist. The fact that the music departments of Broadway shows sought him out so frequently to write, arrange or music direct (or all three) speaks to his influence and value there.
"The talented actors and directors who worked with Wally and Sherman at Theatre Building Chicago on both the shows they wrote [This Fair World and Josephine Tonight!/Tumpie's Dance] benefited from their willingness to share their extensive theatre experience with us all. Both men gave freely of their time and talent. Wally also shared his naughty language, his naughtier sense of humor, and his joy at seeing his work on our stages.
"We are happy to present the exciting work Wally Harper and Sherman Yellen created in Josephine Tonight!, and sad that Wally is not here to enjoy it with us. We miss him."
Reservations are strongly encouraged. Theatre Building Chicago is at 1225 W Belmont Ave., in Chicago.
For additional information about Theatre Building Chicago and its featured theatre companies, visit www.theatrebuildingchicago.org.
The Theatre Building Chicago box office is at (773) 327-5252.