Theater Review: Respect is terrific at TBPAC

Respect is structured around snippets of a "lecture" by actress/singer Burns, taking the part of Dr. Marcic. At the start, she tells us that she's a child of the ’60s who once defined herself by the song "I Will Follow Him" (And where he goes I'll follow/I'll follow/I'll follow). When she looked for an alternate theme song, all she could find was "I Fall to Pieces" (I fall to pieces/each time I see you again/I fall to pieces/How can I be just your friend?). Immediately a method is established: the singers, singly or severally, intone segments of key top songs, and Marcic puts them in context with bits of personal or public history.

Sometimes the tunes occur in a sort of counterpoint, as when Marcic tells us that she was a strong, assertive 8-year-old — and the accompanying song is "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." On other occasions the songs illustrate Marcic's memories, as when she informs us of a family friend who threw out her husband — and the anthem that follows is "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?"

As projections on a large screen flash slides of famous women — Susan B. Anthony, Angela Davis, Debbie Reynolds and Gloria Steinem - Marcic takes us on a whirlwind tour of feminine history, with stops in the ’20s ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), the ’40s ("The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy"), the ’60s ("These Boots are Made for Walking") and now ("Greatest Love of All" and "Hero"). There are endless changes of costume (designed by Rick Criswell), dozens of projections providing historical context (the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement), and a few not-so-silly jokes, as when a living breathing Betty Boop charges through the audience, reminding us of this idiotic cartoon icon who once tried to think, "but nothing happened."

Eventually, the songs of empowerment come to dominate — from Aretha Franklin's "Respect" to Helen Reddy's "I am Woman" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." But what Marcic, oddly, doesn't mention is how many of the show's songs — even the assertive ones — were written or co-written by men. For example, "I Will Survive" was penned by Gaynor's producers, Freddy Perrin and Dino Fekaris. There's a story in this paradox, and it's regrettable that Marcic doesn't confront it.

But who's complaining? Respect is wonderfully directed by Rick Criswell and Karla Hartley, who seem to have aimed at, and reached theatrical perfection; and the three-man combo of Michael Sebastian, keyboards, Joe Grady, bass, and Burt Rushing, drums, couldn't be better. The show received a standing ovation at the matinee I attended, and for once I stood too. Wonderful singing and acting and a serious subtext — I could hardly ask for more. I mean, I hadn't ever realized that "Que Sera, Sera" was a dirty, rotten ode to female passivity. But now I know. And I'm changed. They won't get that one past me again.

Anyway, check this show out.

And bring a crowd.

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Pl., Tampa, 813-229-STAR, Runs through Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, $34.5.

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women (****1/2) is a lot of fun. Thanks to four terrific performers — Alison Burns, Ashley Blake Fisher, Nadeen Holloway and Heather Krueger — it's a delightful tour of the songs women have been singing for the last century or so, and a welcome reminder that there's nothing innocent about Top 40 music, nothing that's not touched by history and social mores.

Created by Vanderbilt professor Dr. Dorothy Marcic, Respect is a funny, rousing and occasionally thrilling medley of about 60 songs from 1901 to the present, featuring hits by everyone from Billie Holiday to Mariah Carey, and favoring melody over meaning so completely that occasionally its sociological intentions get lost in foot-stomping rhythm. Not that it fails as political theater: you couldn't ask for a more entertaining look at American women's history during a period that has seen progress beyond most turn-of-the-century feminists' dreams.

So come one and all: teenagers who don't know the long struggle behind gender equality, baby boomers who hadn't realized just how political their radio days had been, and grandparents who simply want another listen to their whole lives' soundtrack. And don't just bring your female friends: men need to know this stuff too. If we're cognizant of each other's past, we'll be much less likely to fall back into obsolete patterns.

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