First Nighter: Cush Jumbo Truly Stars in Josephine and I

03/10/2015 10:25 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Pauline Kael once wrote -- and probably said many times -- that "it takes a star to play a star." I thought of the quote while watching Cush Jumbo performing her Josephine and I, at Joe's Pub. The Josephine is Josephine Baker, who went to Paris as a showgirl in the 1920s when she was still a teenager and within months was the toast of that town and remained so for the rest of her life. Assuming the role, Jumbo gives full evidence of possessing the sort of abundant je ne sais quoi that Baker had.

It's difficult now to get an accurate idea of exactly what La Bake-aire did in person that so enchanted the French -- although less so Americans when she returned to these shores to headline Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies of 1936. Nevertheless, footage does remain, including some showing Baker swiveling madly in her famous banana dance. There's also, for one, her best-known film, Zouzou.

What Jumbo brings with her -- something no one can manufacture -- is her own charisma. The instant she breathlessly enters the room to welcome the crowd, she lets patrons know she's thrilled to be on hand. The impression only strengthens as, lithe and cute as a button, she goes on.

At first, she explains that from a young age she was enthralled by movie queens and wanted to be them, but only when she learned there was a Josephine Baker did she realize that a woman the same color as she could actually fascinate multitudes. While manipulating a Baby Tears doll she long ago painted brown, she plays a recording of Baker speaking. She begins talking along with it and then becomes Baker.

Recalling the difficult Baker childhood in St. Louis, she proceeds to work her way through a chronological biography. She mentions getting her show-biz start in the Booker T, Washington Theater show, a first failed first marriage at 13 and a second to William Howard Baker that gave her the surname she kept and brought her to Manhattan. There, she stalked a stage manager for a Shuffle Along audition, which she got and got. She describes reluctantly leaving for Paris after the first all-black Broadway revue shuttered and the succeeding acclaim abroad. She carries on through Baker's death at 69.

Jumbo dances with Baker's fabled knock-kneed abandon, convincingly impressing spectators that this had to have been how the young and carefree expatriate show woman spellbound the masses. She throws in a bit of the Charleston that Baker helped popularize. She sings a few of Baker's songs and certainly the signature song "J'ai Deux Amours," wherein she declares she loves both Paris and her homeland. (Joseph Atkins is great support at the piano.)

One thing she doesn't do very much, if at all, is give out with some of the cross-eyed expressions Baker wasn't shy about pulling. Another thing she opts not to indulge herself in is that kinetic banana-skirt dance. That would definitely be fun to see.

She has any number of quick costume changes, several of which conjure Baker's on-stage boldness. Anthony Ward designed them as well as the spare set frequently enhanced by Ravi Deepres' film and photographic sequences.

The high-wattage Jumbo was far more subdued earlier this season when she was in The River, the three-hander headed by Hugh Jackman. She brought steely resolve to her earlier role as Marc Antony in Phyllida Lloyd's Julius Caesar production, which played St. Ann's Warehouse two seasons back. Apparently, the Jumbo-Lloyd combo worked so well then that Lloyd is her director here and clearly responsible for much of the lively pacing.

There is, not so by the way, a prominent Josephine and I element -- so prominent that it surfaces from beginning almost to the end -- about which I won't get specific or even outline. It's intended as a surprise, and I'll honor that. It doesn't necessarily relate directly to Baker's story, but it may be intended to suggest a possible further affinity between Baker and Jumbo.

All I'll say about this thick thread is that I found it a distraction. As such, though, it was the sole deterrent in an otherwise sophisticated, heart-felt and charming work. Had Jumbo tried anything else to showcase not only her talent but, more than that, her star quality, I can't imagine her doing any better than she has.