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Theater review: Josephine Baker tale 'Bananas!' at J.E.T. Studios

December 22, 2011 | 11:00 am

Sloan Robinson as the title character in "Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker"
Go looking for YouTube clips of Josephine Baker's 1920s banana dance and you'll be treated to an explosion of pure playfulness as she combines the Charleston, the Folies Bergère and the hokeypokey into a free-for-all in which her hips swing with the fluid precision of a Machine Age engine.

Wearing little more than a miniskirt of fake bananas, Baker, the daughter of a St. Louis washerwoman, was a sensation in Paris.

Her fruit of choice lends its name to the biographical show that Sloan Robinson wrote and performs solo, with live underscoring by keyboardist Aeros Pierce: "Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker."

Go bananas, though, is exactly what this show doesn't do. Robinson, as Baker, spends most of two hours merely reciting her life, like a talking Wikipedia entry, to a framed photo of Baker's deceased mother.

The fleeting highlight is the banana dance, even if the RPMs aren't what they used to be, either for Robinson or for Baker, who would have been 55 in 1961, the time of the story's telling. In a husky voice, Robinson delivers a small sampling of songs, a couple in French. And on a stage bare but for a few thrift-store furnishings, she slips in and out of gowns, by Naila Aladdin Sanders, that evoke what Baker wore in the many stunning photographs of her that remain.

Robinson, an actress and dancer whose previous one-woman theater efforts include a Dorothy Dandridge piece, has a message to share about Baker's contributions to desegregation and racial harmony. When she works herself into tears, she offers glimpses of her true talent.

But mostly, Robinson tells rather than shows -- the deadly dull opposite of the immersive musical biography "Fela!" now wowing the Ahmanson. With director Joyce Maddox, Robinson delivers a show that captivates neither as stimulating adult entertainment nor teen education and empowerment. 

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More theater reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker," J.E.T. Studios, 5126 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Schedule varies; ends Feb. 29. josephinebaker.eventbrite.com or (818) 358-3453. $30. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Photo: Sloan Robinson as the title character in "Bananas! A Day in the Life of Josephine Baker." Credit: Judith E.

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