If you could put together the soundtrack of YOUR life, which songs would you include?
If you’re a woman born and raised before hip hop and rap stormed the airwaves, it might sound something like “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” that’s now playing at Detroit’s Gem Theatre.
The production, which follows hot on the heels of the uber-successful “Menopause The Musical,” is a celebration of women’s progress throughout the twentieth century – from “codependence to independence.” And what better way is there to do that than through popular music!
The concept is based on research conducted by its creator, Dr. Dorothy Marcic, for her book, “Respect: Women and Popular Music,” for which she analyzed the lyrics of all Top-40 songs sung by women since 1900 – about 2,500 out of more than 20,000. What she discovered is not only educational, but highly entertaining, as well!
Marcic frames her story through the use of her own family’s history to illustrate women’s century-long move towards equality. From such frilly ditties as “Bicycle Built for Two” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” to the powerful “RESPECT” and “I Am Woman,” more than 60 songs are excerpted to delineate the move from “Betty Boop to Betty Friedan.”
The energetic and slickly-paced revue unfolds courtesy of three-time Tony Award winner Hinton Battle, whose staging is near-flawless. So, too, are the performances of Kelly Shook (the unnamed narrator) and ensemble members Shonka Dukureh, Sarah Madej and Marlyn Sanchez. Each knocks at least one number into Comerica Park, but it’s Dukureh who does so with pretty much every song she sings – particularly with “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” and “I Will Survive.”
And in unison? The sounds they make are quite beautiful, indeed, especially with “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” the very well-received “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” and “This One’s for the Girls.”
Even the on-stage three-piece band is without blemish, as are the photographs of women projected on to the screen at the back of the stage that strikingly illuminate the many points the author wishes to make.
The show is not perfect, however. Although generally well structured, Marcic’s usually linear storytelling hits a minor, but disconcerting road bump several minutes into Act Two when we’re suddenly thrust back more than a decade into the mid-1950s – an era well covered about midway through the first act. Although thematically it might make sense to do so – the seriousness of Rosa Parks’ contributions to the civic rights movement simply don’t match the frothiness of Lucy Ricardo and June Cleaver – such a jarring change does not serve the show well.
Then, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons to “Menopause.” Although many women at the opening night performance seemed to be having a grand time relating their lives to what they saw on stage – much like what happened at “Menopause” – “Respect” comes up short in a handful of areas.
For starters, the no-name characters in “Respect” are not the “every women” we loved and identified with in “Menopause.” Whereas the actresses in “Menopause” came in all shapes and sizes, three of the very beautiful women in its successor are visually interchangeable. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being tall, slim, young, auburn-haired and gorgeous. But where’s the blonde? The redhead? Or the more mature woman? The women’s movement wasn’t accomplished by models, but by women of all stripes.)
Then there’s the material itself. Whereas “Menopause” was all about celebrating and having fun with the change – an event pretty much every woman can identify with – “Respect” sometimes comes across as a 1970s feminist studies lecture, complete with sweeping generalizations and historical interpretations that might not sit well with everyone – man or woman – sitting in the audience.
‘Respect: A Musical Journey of Women’
Gem Theatre, 333 Madison Ave., Detroit. Runs every Wed.-Sun. Tickets: $39.50. For information: 313-963-9800 or http://www.gemtheatre.com