Time was when a woman was nothing without a man, and if she ever made the mistake of throwing the bum out, it was only a matter of time until she took all the blame and begged him to return.  Need proof? Just sing a few bars of “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home?” and you’ll see how true this was back at the turn of the last century:

“I’ll do the cooking.  I’ll pay the rent.  I know I’ve done you wrong. I know I’m to blame. Bill Bailey, won’t you please some home?”

Compare that to these lyrics written about 75 years later.

“I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs. And so I learned to depend on me.” (From “The Greatest Love Of All”)

Just as women’s roles have evolved over the past century, so have the songs which they have sung changed with the times, a fact made melodically clear in Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical, a pizzazzy docu-musical just opened at the El Portal Forum Theatre.

Based on Dorothy Marcic’s book Respect: Women And Popular Music, Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical chronicles the lives of American women in music, beginning with the days when all a girl wanted was “Someone To Watch Over Me” (if she was a good girl, that is). For the more sin-minded, there was always the other option—becoming a “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” “a gal who loves to see men suffer!  To tease ’em, and thrill ’em, to torture and kill ’em.”

Performed by an absolutely sensational quartet of Broadway and Vegas vets (Susan Carr George, Nraca, Jackie Seiden, and Alet Taylor), Respect could very well replicate the success of the El Portal’s most recent show, a phenomenon called The Marvelous Wonderettes.

Playing the role of Dorothy Marcic (who also wrote the book for Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical), George takes the audience for a trip down memory lane, recalling the journey made by the women of Marcic’s family and by the women of the country as a whole.

Even by the 1930s, though, not much had changed from the early 1900s. Sure, a Frenchwoman named Coco Chanel had liberated women from their corsets and crinolines, but as Betty Boop still sang, every girl’s dream was “to be loved by you, by you, and nobody else but you.”  WWII gave women a taste of their own strength as they took over jobs previously held only by men, but when the war ended, so did women’s adventures in industry.  1950s women were back to dreaming of diamonds (“a girl’s best friend”) and finding the perfect husband (though not necessarily in that order).  “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was the anthem of the day. 

The 1960s ushered in a sea of changes, but most women still dreamed of being “Where The Boys Are.”  A breakup with Mr. Right still meant “The End Of The World,” and if a woman’s husband’s should happen to get a promotion and transfer, the wife’s response would inevitably be “I Will Follow Him.” Any wife worth her salt knew that the man was always right and knew exactly how to beg for forgiveness: “Johnny get angry. Johnny get mad.  Give me the biggest lecture I’ve ever had.” 

Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical has already been a hit in Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. No wonder. Each of its 60 or so songs is sure to ring a bell or spark a memory in its mostly female audiences (though men not threatened by liberated women will find much to enjoy as well).  “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “My Man,” “Stand By Your Man,” and a hilariously overwrought “It Must Be Him” performed by Taylor are further examples of an attitude which persisted until Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem began the feminist revolution and Nancy Sinatra dared to declare that “one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

Director Peter J. Leowy couldn’t have found a more talented quartet of women than Repect’s four stars.  Petite dynamo (and powerful vocalist) George serves as narrator, and occasional co-conspirator, as when she joins the gals for a rocking rendition of Martina McBride’s anthem to women, “This One’s For The Girls.”  Alet Taylor brings a comic flair (and a wow of a voice) to her numbers, and Nraca not only lends her soulful pipes to songs like “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” but pays moving tribute to Rosa Parks.  Best of all is the gorgeous triple-threat Jackie Seiden, fresh from the Jersey Boys tour and on the fast track to stardom. 

Musical director Jim Vukovich is non-stop brilliant on piano, a veritable one-man orchestra, making the biggest, richest sound imaginable from a mere 88 keys. Choreographer par excellence Lee Martino punctuates Respect’s multiple song medleys with a variety of dance steps reflecting the show’s changing eras, executed to perfection by her cast.

Ivy Thaide’s colorful costumes and Edwin Pleitez’s multihued lighting are both first rate.  Most effective among the design elements are the hundreds of images projected atop Victoria Profitt’s set—women of Marcic’s family back to her Norwegian grandmother and women who shaped and/or mirrored their eras, from Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana, from Annette Funicello to Britney Spears.

Though there are times when one might wish for fewer snippets and more songs performed in their entirety, Respect: The Girl Em-Powered Musical is more than just a concert of hit songs a la Beehive.  In the hands (and voices) of its talented cast, it is a two-hour journey through a century of change.  In the words of Respect’s closing number, it is “a reflection of who I am and what will be,” and a moving and entertaining one at that.

El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 24, 2008

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