Review: The Rep's World Premiere Sizzles in SIRENS OF SONG and Woos Women to Unite

By: Mar. 31, 2016
Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

Woo a women's heart at Milwaukee Rep's poetic, powerful world premiere titled Sirens of Song featuring history tuned to a women's perspective and sung through familiar melodies of the 20th century. While the music begins in December 1901 with the "Daughters of Freedom", the Stackner Cabaret provides the ultimate setting for Scenic Designer Scott Davis' abandoned clothing shop filled with manikins dressed in period costumes-all surrounded by a grand, gilt fragmented picture frame where these three actresses open their Rep debuts. A world premiere revue written by Kevin Ramsey and his niece Pearl Ramsey, the two collaborators weave world events through a century worth of popular music.

Similar to the ancient Greek chorus, a trio of triple threat women create the mythical sirens mentioned in the title who magically travel through an open vortex in space and land in the abandoned clothing shop, where they believe "the world will feel better in song." At one point when relating bits of history through the Ramsey's lyrical dialogue, the three recall that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced in 1923 by Alice Paul and Cyrstal Eastman. A constitutional amendment almost ratified finally in 1972, the ERA died in the 1982 congress. Today, after almost 90 years, no equality for women is guaranteed by America's constitution, although these actresses sing and celebrate the battles won over the century..

Three acclaimed and debuting actors, Bertilla Baker, Amelia Cormack and Malesha McQueen, travel those100 years through music recalling women's suffrage nationally acquired in 1920, two world wars, rock and roll, great girl bands, the hippie 60's, Vietnam, the disco 70's along with rhythm and blues from the past sprinkled between each decade of song. Donning sparkling costumes designed by Scott A. Rott,. the trio belts out 38 songs, including -"St. Louis Blues" and a version of " "At Last" that proves to be a great solo by McQueen as is "My Man Rocks Me." Cormack interprets Kansas' Dust Bowl years in terms of pure longing through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the double standard in women's beauty with Janis Ian's famous song "At Seventeen." Baker's lovely rendition of "Life Begins at Forty." speaks to when a women graciously transitions from an amateur to a connoisseur, instead of hasty, there's tasty, and this time where after 40 only quality counts.

Quality counts when mentioning these historic women the Ramseys celebrate with the words "Women of the World Unite" written on the stage backdrop, such as: Sojourner Truth, Blues singer Big Mama Thornton, the first African American women pilot born in 1892 Bessie Coleman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Sally Ride. There's a special tribute to all mothers and servicemen in the song with the lyrics: "I didn't raise my son to be a soldier to shoot some other mother's pride and joy." Musicians and singers Aretha Franklin, Carole King, the Supremes, Pointer Sisters and Barbra Streisand made history throughout the later half of the century where "Now is the Power of the Feminine." There's plenty of this trio's "Hot Stuff" on stage while they serenade with the words "all shades of women are ordinary people with a hero's heart."

The audience thrills to the music and the singers accompanied by Music Director Abdul Hamid Royal playing keyboard behind a white draped curtain. Ramsey also directed and choreographed the show, where his world premiere evening crescendos after intermission, when Vietnam and protests, bombings and injustice seep into the world, and a women's life so Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" became a theme song in the 70's and then when re-recorded in the 90's. This matched Aretha Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's hit song in the late 60's, "Respect." All these song still resonate in the incredibly entertaining trip where women's lives ends with a 1978 Chaka Khan hit that Whitney Houston eventually immortalized on video at the turn of the 21st century, "I Am Every Woman."

The production sizzles in the Stackner while the feminine message and music burns brightly in women's hearts...And perhaps in the minds of the men that cherish and love them. While the slogan 'we've come a long way baby,' rings partially true, there's several long roads yet to travel with the goal of complete equality in the distance. Today these feminine issues often remain lost in other turmoils, the terrorist bombings, and the events humanity now accepts as normal, where prejudice, for ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation still fuel violence. Pilot Bessie Coleman, pictured on the stage wall in a poster, believed,"The air is the only place free from prejudices."

For a powerful finale, Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Women," set to music resonates throughout the cabaret...And while the audience admires these three soulful actresses in an electric performance, women wonder if they will ever achieve equal pay? Similar to how the mythological sirens kept singing such beautiful songs, Baker, Cormack and McQueen will entrance the audience at each performance while The Rep and The Ramsey's ask of those hearing these 20th century voices: What happens after the songs are over?"

Milwaukee Rep presents the World Premiere of Sirens of Songs at the Stackner Cabaret in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through March 29. For information about the 2016-2017 season, the upcoming August Wilson's Fences beginning April 26, or tickets to Sirens of Songs, please call 414.224.9490 or visit