Review: RESPECT: THE MUSICAL at Black Theatre Troupe

The production runs through April 9th at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center on E. Washington Street in Phoenix.

By: Mar. 27, 2023
Review: RESPECT: THE MUSICAL at Black Theatre Troupe
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In the following review of The Black Theatre Troupe's contribution to the celebration of Women's History Month ~ RESPECT: THE MUSICAL ~ Guest Contributor David Appleford offers keen insights regarding the history of the musical and an insightful assessment of the current production.

Here now - From the keyboard of David Appleford:

Currently playing at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center on East Washington Street in Phoenix until April 9, is the final production of The Black Theatre Troupe's 2022-23 season, RESPECT: THE MUSICAL. The original, full title was Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, and it began as a one-woman show in 1999, performed by its writer, Dr. Dorothy Marcic. The show lasted forty minutes.

Because of the shortened title now used from the theatre's marketing, it's easy for some local theatre-goers to think that what they're about to see is a live version of the Aretha Franklin story based on the 2021 film Respect, but RESPECT: THE MUSICAL, as performed by The Black Theatre Troupe, is something quite different. Here's the setup.

Playwright Dr. Marcic, currently a professor at Columbia University and previously a lecturer at our local ASU, wrote a book that scrutinized the role of women in society as reflected in popular hit songs of their day. It was called Respect: Women and Popular Music, an examination that closely researched all Top-40 female song lyrics since 1900. The book found something interesting and unexpected.

What was reflected in those words backed by catchy tunes was a pattern of female dependency, even compliance (think I Wanna Be Loved By You, It Must Be Him, If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd Have Baked a Cake) that didn't change until 1963 when a corner was suddenly turned by a 17-year-old teenager.

As we learn throughout the show, up until 1963, Dr. Marcic found that sixty-four percent of those popular hits sung by women were songs of female subservience. When the themes of many of those early tunes told ladies to either pretty themselves for their man, because, well, boys will be boys, or, from the lyrics of Fanny Brice's My Man - 'He isn't good/He isn't true/He beats me too' - where the message is, if you love him, no matter what, you'll forgive him 'cos he's your man, women may find themselves revisiting some of those famous songs of the past and suddenly viewing them through a different prism while declaring, "What were we thinking?"

The song that made the change was Lesley Gore's You Don't Own Me where, for the first time in pop music, a woman denied the wishes of a man and declared her independence. After that, the subservient-styled lyrics slowly faded (despite Stand By Your Man) replaced by Nancy Sinatra's These Boots Were Made for Walkin', Helen Reddy's I Am Woman, right up to Katy Perry's Roar.

All of this is covered in The Black Theatre Troupe's 2-hour presentation of Dr. Marcic's juke-box musical revue, but the most interesting aspect of director and choreographer Patdro Harris's lively production, particularly for those who have seen earlier presentations, is witnessing how over the years, the show has changed. The touring production came to the Valley in 2014 and played at the Herberger Theatre. What was seen and heard downtown during the last decade is very different from the production you can now see and hear at the Helen K. Mason Theatre.

In truth, the show was never great theatre; close your eyes and you could listen to the production as an audio-only piece for radio and it would lose nothing. The visual creativity has always depended on a new director's interpretation of how to present what is essentially a lightweight theatrical version of an intellectual's lecture on pop culture, backed by songs of the day, sung specifically to make a point. Generally, the show's setup consists of four women performing to an audience on an open set that could be anywhere.

One character (Sabrina Custer) acts as its main narrator and asks the question, "What would be the soundtrack of your life?" Her job is to steer the conversation as she reflects on her soundtrack while the remaining three ladies (Rico Burton, Sarah Lee Mabry, and Lotus Numari) sing those songs as either medleys, trios, solos, and even as a quartet when the narrator dons one of Joshua N. Walker's period costumes and joins in. Some productions, such as one produced in Palm Beach, expanded the cast to eight players, while other productions changed the open-staged set to reflect Dr. Marcic's comfortable living room where friends came over, hung out on the sofa and couch and enacted the script as a musical conversation piece between each other, not directly at the audience.

Director Harris presents his Black Theatre Troupe version of RESPECT: THE MUSICAL in a somewhat traditional manner; a diverse cast of four ladies performing on a mostly open stage with a background design by Sarah Harris that displays household artifacts of the past on enclosed shelves. Here the ladies talk and sing directly to the audience. When the voices can be as rich and as distinctive as they are here, backed by an excellent off-stage band under the musical direction of Brenda Hankins, there are several musical opportunities to perform certain songs from the score in ways that were not heard in the previous all-white 2014 production at the Herberger. Some musical opportunities are missed - surprisingly, despite hearing the opening bars of Stop In The Name of Love as used in the show's overture, there are no Motown songs in the score that, if sung by this particular cast of ladies, would have changed much of the overall sound and excitement - but several other sequences are hits in unexpected ways.

While neither The Andrew Sisters' Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy nor Betty Boop's I Wanna Be Loved By You echo either the sound or overall fun of those songs and how they were used back in the day (a Betty Boop voice would have gone a long way), the score soars with a moving rendition of Billie Holidays's God Bless The Child, then flows into the 1920s blues standard Ain't Nobody's Business once a genuine heart rendering monologue of how unruly mobs lynched her friends is delivered.

The same can be said about the sequence in Act II where Rico Burton as Rosa Parks is introduced by the narrator as "The woman who made a stand by sitting down." Burton's speech using Rosa Parks's words as she retells the historic fateful episode of what happened in 1955 on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama is as fine a piece of acting as you would want to see, followed by another moving rendition of a classic song, the American civil rights era anthem, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round.

RESPECT: THE MUSICAL is an ever-evolving work where some of the narration is either changed or updated from original scripts - now there's even a Snapchat joke - while some of the original songs are replaced and updated with newer ones. In other words, what Valley audiences saw in 2014 is not only different from what they will see right now at 1333 East Washington Street, but it will be different again down the road when another director's vision on how to present the piece comes to town.

And for the men - even though the show reflects songs and lyrics from a female perspective, don't think for a moment that Dr. Marcic's work and the overall message are not relatable to you. Even though the Burt Bacharach song Wives and Lovers is not used in the show - presumably because it's a male-sung hit by Jack Jones - the Hal David lyrics perfectly underline everything RESPECT: THE MUSICAL is all about. Check the lyrics when you get the chance. After hearing "Hey! Little Girl/Comb your hair, fix your makeup/Soon he will open the door," you should be joining the ladies by declaring the same thing they declared - "What were we thinking?"

Black Theatre Troupe ~ The Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ ~ https://www.blacktheatretroupe.org/ ~ 602-258-8128

Graphic credit to TBTT




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