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Josie & Grace explores relationship between two Hollywood titans

Florida’s Dynamite Lunchbox Entertainment brings Josie & Grace to UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium, Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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Tymisha Harris, left, and Rachel Comeau star in Josie & Grace, a play about the relationship between singer Josephine Baker and actress Grace Kelly. DYNAMITE LUNCHBOX ENTERTAINMENT

JOSIE & GRACE

When: Wednesday, Nov. 29, 7 p.m.
Where: Farquhar Auditorium (3800 Finnerty Rd.), University of Victoria
Tickets: $40 ($32 students/alumni) from tickets.uvic.ca

The billing of a stage musical about the relationship between singer Josephine Baker and actress Grace Kelly as a “mostly historical cabaret dream play” will make some recoil at the mere mention of it. But scratch slightly below the surface of Josie & Grace, and all fears of a somnambulant thinkpiece will be quelled.

The production from Florida’s Dynamite Lunchbox Entertainment is an electric song-and-dance showcase for stars Tymisha Harris (who plays Baker) and Rachel Comeau (as Kelly), who are working with rich source material. From Baker’s civil rights activism and friendships with Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau to Kelly’s Oscar-winning oeuvre and marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, the lives of both were tailor-made for the stage.

Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship in the 1930s and became a French national, while Kelly starred in a string of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers before retiring from acting in the mid-1950s and began her duties as Princess of Monaco.

“That these two women were able to have the lives that they did, it’s so far fetched,” Harris said. “It’s unreal that these women could lead such daring lives and be as true to themselves as they were.”

The mixture of theatre, cabaret and burlesque is paired with a script featuring both fictional fodder and actual events — such as when the two friends met for the first time at Manhattan’s Stork Club in 1951, which was much publicized at the time. The bulk of their relationship, which had its ups and downs, took place out of the public eye, however, so the “dream play” format imagines what could have taken place in some circumstances, Harris said.

“It was an interesting way to try and figure out the timeline and how to tell the story,” Harris said.

Harris is well known by this point for her award-winning portrayal of Baker, which she debuted in Josephine at the 2016 San Diego Fringe. The one-woman performance went on to win raves off-Broadway before dominating the Victoria Fringe Festival in 2019, winning the Pick of the Fringe, Best Performance, and Favourite Solo Show awards that year.

Josie & Grace has been around since 2021 but is making its way to Victoria for the first time tonight. The performance at the Farquhar Auditorium will introduce audiences to Comeau in the role of Kelly, whose friendship with Baker began in 1951 and lasted until Baker’s death in 1975. Comeau (who, like Harris, is based in Orlando) believes audiences will delight in learning more about the private life of one of the most adored — and secretive — actresses of her generation.

“Grace’s love and admiration of Josephine, that was paramount,” Comeau said. “But a characteristic of Grace that I make sure to nail every show is her smile. She was so elegant, but the second she laughed or smile, you really saw this great innocence about her. I want the audience to see that and feel that. Because when you see pictures of it, her smile really lights up the room.”

Whereas Kelly was thought to be regal, Baker — who was 23 years older than her friend — was “commanding all the time,” according to Harris. “She was in your face, charismatic. As Grace was becoming royalty, her husband probably didn’t want someone that was being branded a communist around his picturesque wife. We touch on that in the show. There had to be some reason why they weren’t able to really explore their friendship. They had to figure it out a different way.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com