REVIEW: Is Respect the Sleeper Hit of the Philly Spring Theater Season?
Appearances can be deceiving.
Everything about Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, currently playing at the Penn’s Landing Playhouse, seems, at first, to be modest at best: The theater, which is tucked away on the second floor of the Independence Seaport Museum, has a minimal set and a lot of Patsy Cline pre-show music. There’s a series of risers that hold a four-piece band and a lamppost, and you can’t help but prepare yourself for the worst: This is, after all, what appears to be in the same vain as Menopause: The Musical or, even worse, Nunsense.
Then the lights dim and the show starts and you’ll be damned if you aren’t totally engrossed. Sure, Respect isn’t going to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but it’s insanely smart and wildly entertaining. What makes this particular production so darn good is the four performers who bring so much energy and talent to the stage.
The musical, which has become popular fare for a wide range of regional theaters around the country, was penned by Dorothy Marcic, a scholar and former Vanderbilt professor, who studied over 2,000 pop songs composed over the last century in an effort to support her own theories that modern music essentially told the story of women through its lyrics. Her work was first published in book form, and later became source material for the show. And, indeed, there’s enough music here to appeal to just about any person who shows up to the theater: From “Stand By Your Man” to “Video” by India.Arie. It’s shocking just how much song is packed in the two hours.
April Woodall, who essentially plays Ms. Marcic’s doppelgänger in this production, a narrator that explores all Marcic’s research and findings, is absolutely superb. Ms. Woodall, a respected New York and regional performer, is a fine actress, with a keen sense of comic timing. Her rendition of “Piece of My Heart” quite simply drove the audience wild, and she brought unique touches to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”at the end of the show.
Ms. Woodall is joined by a powerhouse ensemble cast, all with big voices and big hearts, who perform a series of vignettes throughout the show. Marissa Barnathan was a divine energetic presence, whose voice resonated in her more powerful ballad numbers. Her rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” from the musical Oliver! was particularly moving, and she brought color to more humorous numbers, like “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” Lindsay Roberts, who has toured with the national productions of Porgy and Bess and Memphis, was a total powerhouse, and brought soulful quality to “God Bless the Child,” and “Turn Me Around.” Her scene where she donned the personality of Billie Holiday and discussed the lynching of her friends was haunting and moving. Lauren Rooney was utterly fabulous in her renditions of “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” and “Whatever Lola Wants.” She also proved to be quite an excellent actress, bringing heartfelt emotion to some of her more serious vignettes, including a “slut-shaming” monologue that demonstrated the inequalities between male and female sexuality.
There is, of course, plenty of tackiness to go around in this production: Three pairs of white go-go boots fly in from the rafters during “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and there’s enough sequins and pink feather boas to make any drag queen jealous. Three screens project pictures that commentate on the songs behind the performers, and more times than not, they seemed more like a distraction than anything else, although sometimes they did work for comic relief: During “Sweet Talking Guy,” images of Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and, yes, Chris Christie were shown, which got quite a chuckle from the audience.
But sequins aside, there is a hell of a lot of soul and smarts on that stage, and the show serves almost like a documentary of sorts that shows the changes women have made, not only in American pop culture but in general. As Ms. Woodall’s character so keenly put it, “Sometimes, we’ve gone backwards … like Britney Spears.” Images of Britney, and Nicki Minaj, and Miley Cyrus all popped up on those projection screens, which got a hearty laugh.
The show ended with a purposely gaudy rendition of I Will Survive, complete with mini-dresses and sparkly sunglasses. Sure, it is silly, but if you aren’t dancing in your seat, you really should check your pulse. And if you didn’t leave the Penn’s Landing Playhouse appreciating the insanely talented group of women who just performed for the last two hours, you ought to take a course in r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
Respect plays through May 31. For tickets and more information, click here.