College professor-turned-scripter Dorothy Marcic has culled selections from a century of top tunes to underscore her concept that the evolving history of the 20th century American woman has been chronicled in the popular music of the day. Helmer Peter J. Loewy guides a talented four-woman ensemble through Marcic’s often-meandering tuner history lesson.
Narrating chores are handled mostly by Marcic stand-in Susan Carr George, who utilizes the professor’s Wisconsin-rooted maternal lineage, from her grandmother through her own three daughters, interpolating her stories through 80-plus melodies, including “Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900), “Over There” (WWI), “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” (’20s), “I Wanna Be Loved by You” (’30s), “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (’40s), “Tammy’s in Love” (’50s), “Piece of My Heart” (’60s), “At Seventeen” (’70s), “Material Girl” (’80s) and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (’90s).
What’s lacking is a clear emotional connection between the historical narrative and the songs, which are too often heard in musical slivers. George is a vivacious storyteller, but Marcic’s genealogy more often intrudes on the true strength of this historical tuner: the songs and the standout vocal abilities of the four ladies onstage.
When given the vocal spotlight, George displays both her vocal and hoofer prowess with a Marilyn Monroe-esque “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and a sultry “Whatever Lola Wants” (economically staged by Lee Martino). However, the true showstopper of the first act is Alet Taylor’s hilarious, scenery-spewing outing on Vickie Carr’s 1960s anthem to co-dependency, “It Must Be Him.”
Wending its way through the show’s storyline is the history of women’s civil rights. A highlight is the touching chronicle of Rosa Parks by Nraca, who also provides deeply moving vocals on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and the Gloria Gaynor hit “I Will Survive.”
Jackie Seiden capably performs a broad range of fare, offering captivating vocals on Betty Boop’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “The Greatest Love of All,” and a telling rendering of “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” highlighted by projections of such historically suspect men folk as O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.
“Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical” offers a tuneful reminder of the power and relevance of popular music throughout history. But if it’s to move on to Off Broadway contention, it would benefit from some judicious narrative trimming, allowing the storyline to more seamlessly flow into the representative songs.
The show would also profit from an upsurge in orchestration. Music director Jim Vukovich is a more-than-capable accompanist, but his single acoustic piano could use some sound reinforcement to properly uplift the vocal output of four power-lunged thrushes.