Estrogen Fest

The women are at it again in Playhouse Square's Respect.

Respect Hanna Theatre, East 14th Street and Prospect Avenue Through October 1, 216-241-6000
Respect's fine cast overcomes a few clunky numbers.
Respect's fine cast overcomes a few clunky numbers.
That churning sound you hear downtown is not the Browns gearing up for their next 6-10 campaign. It's the tidal wave of estrogen being unleashed up on East 14th, as Menopause, the Musical has given way to another songfest committed to making boomer babes dance in the aisles.

Yes, this time the You go, girl! shouts are being triggered by a musical march through the 20th century, tracing the travails and triumphs of women as they have clawed their way from second-class citizenship to empowerment. And although the story line of Respect at the Hanna Theatre skims over far too much history while trying to cram in the personal journey of the playwright, imaginative staging and a relentlessly effusive cast make it all work disarmingly well.

Dorothy Marcic, possessor of a Ph.D. and a penchant for didacticism, assembled the show as a spin-off from her scholarly treatise on women and popular music. She found that the songs we sang along with and hummed at various stages of recent history were a fairly accurate barometer of the status of women in society at that time. The result is an evening featuring more than 60 songs -- some presented in full, some only in fragments -- that evoke regret and celebration of what women have gone through.

Of course, any theatrical presentation that tries to encompass massive social movements over many decades in two hours is going to be accused of shallowness. But once you accept the fact that this production is plopped in the kiddie pool, intellectually speaking, there's plenty of fun to be had stomping and splashing around.

The revue was conceived as a one-woman show, with the author supported by a trio of female singers, and it retains that form as Paula Kline-Messner plays Dr. Dorothy with the rueful wisdom of an academic who's slumming just a bit. Without the laser pointer, but with all the other pedagogical appurtenances in place (including photo slides), Dorothy begins the melodic lecture with the famous beauty Lillie Langtry and "A Bird in a Gilded Cage." This creaky ditty from 1900 reveals the melancholy side of even a privileged woman's life ("You may think she's happy and free from care/She's not, though she seems to be") and sets the stage for many more tunes that seem to refract differently in this female-centered context.

Familiar oldies like "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" feel strangely repressive and illustrate Marcic's theme that, for many years, a good woman was dependent and obsequious. And in the first act, she succeeds in mixing enough humor with the bullet points, so that one isn't tempted to start taking notes and asking about the midterm. A perfect example of this is when Tricia Bestic does a squeaky yet sublime rendition of "I Wanna Be Loved by You," complete with perhaps the most infectiously giggly "boop-boop-a-doop" ever uttered.

From a feminist perspective, some of the songs are a forced fit. Although the words of "Bend Me, Shape Me" fit the premise, the song was written in the voice of a man and was recorded by a guy band, the American Breed. And others, such as "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?," have little to say about the condition of women. The show occasionally lurches in the opposite direction, becoming overly serious about certain events, such as Rosa Parks' courageous bus protest. Yes, she was a woman, and yes, she did a great thing -- but that was a civil rights milestone, not a women's rights issue.

These digressions reveal the playwright as an overly enthusiastic instructor, willing to buttress her position with examples that offer quantity rather than quality. Along the way, Marcic also refers to her own family, complete with scrapbook photos. This can be quite affecting, particularly when Dorothy notes that most of her family photos consist of women and children, as the men had divorced and left. But since there is no time to explore these personal dynamics, her family saga is quickly buried under the avalanche of pop tunes.

In addition to the excellent Bestic, Tina Stump lends a powerful presence in her many guises, and Melissa Barber uses her throaty and sultry alto to great effect on songs such as "Whatever Lola Wants." Kline-Messner's serviceable singing voice now and then lapses into a piping pitch, particularly in the treacly "In My Daughter's Eyes," but she handles the role of narrator with ease.

Director David Arisco keeps the pace lively with some interesting staging, turning Rosie the Riveter work coats inside out, so they become aprons for the working women forced back into their kitchens after World War II. And even though a few of the songs are arranged with an off-putting swingy beat, which turns the anthem "I Am Woman" into a gummy exercise, musical director Gary Rusnak creates a strong musical spine for the production. All in all, Respect is a worthy successor to the enormously popular Menopause.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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