A jukebox show tracing distaff social history through evergreen hit songs, “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” undergoes its Down Under transfer after a series of regional U.S. outings with finger-snapping, crowd-pleasing results. Top cast, headlined by the super-charismatic Rhonda Burchmore, plus canny direction and effective staging made the tuner a hit in Brisbane prior to its Melbourne run. Other Oz states will follow.
Original version, inspired by playwright Dorothy Marcic’s book, “Respect: Women and Popular Music,” began as a 1999 lecture series and then developed into a full-scale musical theater piece presented for the first time in 2004.
Aussie production reworks the material, with a quartet of actresses doing a “read-and-sing-through” of Marcic’s familial memoirs. One of the actresses, Dodie (Burchmore), is a seasoned vet who steers the other three, all auditioning neophytes, while offering sassy tidbits of worldly wisdom along the melody-strewn way.
This admittedly corny (and not very substantive) set-up somehow works, despite a cultural whistle-stop tour that dispenses everything from the Great Depression and “Gone With the Wind” to Barbie Dolls and Rosa Parks with speedy, surface-skating dispatch.
The potentially cliched framework of the older broad advising a trio-of-tyros is given zest by a talented team, portraying their stereotypes with enough variation to keep auds engaged.
There’s Rikki (Lucy Durack), the ditzy blonde with a heart of gold; street-wise vamp Miriam (Belinda Wollaston); and Grace (Elenoa Rokobaro), who’s young, gifted, black and somewhat gauche.
But it’s really the often haunting, always catchy numbers that count here — all 35 of them. Highlights include Rokobaro’s soulful, full-volume rendition of the Billie Holiday standard “God Bless the Child,” Wollaston’s brassy “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and Durack’s hyper-naturalistic, almost Method-style delivery of “You Don’t Own Me.”
Topping the other memorable performers is the tall, long-legged Burchmore, whose considerable star qualities are on dazzling display throughout. She uses her articulate twang and husky vibrato to superlatively nail every item on her extensive song list with bravado and hard-shining showbiz sell. Whether belting out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” or strutting out “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” she’s a larger-than-life diva.
It’s Burchmore’s luster that earns our respect on this musical journey of a woman among women, which is further served by Matthew Scott’s moody lighting design and music director Kellie Dickerson’s
all-girl onstage band.