Kathy St. George
Toward the end of Respect: A Musical Journey (at the Stuart Street Playhouse indefinitely), a revue bringing together some four dozen female-associated pop oldies, comes the big moment that’s supposed to represent American womanhood shaking off its shackles and stepping bravely into the future. And the song that accompanies this moment? Charlene’s 1982 hit “I’ve Never Been to Me,” widely considered one of the sappiest songs ever written.
Fortunately, Aimee Collier — one of three excellent performers on stage — makes the song bearable, if not quite anthemic. But that’s Respect in a nutshell: as a “musical journey” it goes nowhere, tracing a century of women’s lives and music with all the depth of a Virginia Slims commercial. Performers Collier, Kareema M. Castro, and Tiana Cheechia make it a perfectly good evening of cabaret if you tune out the narration.
That can be a chore since the author, former Vanderbilt University professor Dorothy Marcic, isn’t content to make the point that women have sung a lot of great songs, give or take a Charlene number. Instead she employs an on-stage narrator (Kathy St. George) to deliver a running monologue that combines Marcic’s personal history (by all appearances numbingly conventional) with the social history of American women since 1900, with the civil-rights movement thrown in for good measure. The story is told in broad strokes, with feel-good howlers like “Rosa Parks was tired on that bus, all right — tired of oppression!” And the narrator’s journey ends when she decides to work part-time and watch her daughter grow, a noble goal but not the stuff of which riveting theater is made.
Although most of the song choices are better than the Charlene turkey, most are obvious enough to further this Cliffs Notes of musical feminism. Icons like Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, and Janis Joplin are hauled out; “I Will Survive” and “I Am Woman” show up exactly when you’d expect them to. Notably missing are the many performers — Marlene Dietrich, Laura Nyro, Patti Smith, even Madonna — who put a twist on female identity. For that matter, there’s so much griping about what heels men are that it’s surprising the show doesn’t close with a medley of k.d. lang and Ani DiFranco songs.
It’s no small feat to put emotional substance into this kind of revue, but the singers manage it. Collier gets saddled with a tragic monologue about a ’50s girl who gives in to her boyfriend’s pleas to (shudder) have sex but comes back strong with “Piece of My Heart,” which she delivers in her own voice instead of aping Joplin’s. Castro does well on the soul belters; she’s better still on the slow burn of “God Bless the Child.”
But it’s Cheechia who shows the greatest range. In the first act she’s given the sweet and innocent roles, including a charming turn as Betty Boop and a comic (but not over-campy) take on Vikki Carr’s lovelorn “It Must Be Him.” Later she gets more suggestion out of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” than the script wants her to. By embodying so many personalities, Cheechia reminds us there’s more variation in female pop, not to mention American womanhood, than the script lets on.