Respect: A Musical Journey of Women Is a Jukebox from Hell

It's not every day one has the opportunity to see a compilation musical based on a historical survey published by a Vanderbilt professor who's also a Fulbright Scholar, a one-time United Nations delegate, and a member of the Bahá'í faith (that last tidbit should be irrelevant but isn't, for a reason we'll get to later).

Despite playwright Dorothy Marcic's admirable career and sterling intentions (for example, part of ticket and merch proceeds from Respect: A Musical Journey of Women goes to a foundation that helps empower women and girls worldwide), we are extremely lucky it's not every day. In fact, Phoenicians need exercise only a few more days of vigilance to miss it altogether, this time around. [Update: Tickets are currently on sale for performances through Saturday, January 22.]

Check out those basic black costumes in the photo above, which are one trifling problem out of many more serious ones. The courageous and hardworking cast wears those for two entire acts, and someone took credit for choosing them.

Don't attribute too much of this train wreck to efforts at modesty or non-exploitive fashion -- Ms. Mayes' spandex top goes perilously low, and Ms. Dora's tight jeans and tall boots are the only flattering items in the entire wardrobe. Oh, the ankle booties anchoring those unfortunately placed hemlines. Oh, the fishnets, the ruffled mini with capri leggings. Oh, the humanity.

But let's focus on the show, why don't we? It traces the flourishing of American women's identities and place in society through 20th-century Top-40 lyrics sung by female performers. And it doesn't matter that you could trace the development of any social trend, including those that make the world seem an increasingly crappy place, through pop lyrics -- if cherry-picking the facts has a place anywhere, it should be in the arts.

For the past couple of years, the play has toured the U.S. and Australia and been popular with much the same audiences as Menopause: The Musical, a show that is even worse (I, too, have endured it -- and it's coming back!) but apparently offers great bonding moments for groups of women, as does Respect.

On the plus side, Respect's cast is quite talented, although the amplification and mixing of the high range of the voices mandated use of my rock 'n' roll earplugs, which I've never before needed at the theater. Also, the familiar lyrics (save one) have not been rewritten (as they were in Menopause) -- what they're about is the whole point of the show.

Here's the thing, though -- there aren't any characters. (Referring to someone by a name during a 20-second sketch does not create a character.) There isn't a plot. (Telling occasional unconnected anecdotes about oneself and one's family? Ditto.) The choreography consists mostly of stepping up and down three stacked, circular platforms. The band, while proficient, keeps things nicely in the background with pedestrian, beat-heavy arrangements that make every number sound like the same unspecified loungey genre.

The script's tendency to truncate the songs, presenting only a stanza or less of each one, became increasingly annoying as the evening plodded on. Of course, the show would be even longer if the songs were performed in their entirety, and Respect isn't about music, per se.

So if Respect: A Musical Journey of Women is not about letting the ladies cut loose as vocalists, what's left? Not much, and what there is is almost exclusively gratingly horrible -- it's a dreadful show that, despite the Bahá'í prohibition of fault-finding, I notice a whole lotta fault with. (It's not as though anyone has to find these faults. They've been packaged up and delivered right to the audience.) Speaking of prohibitions, of which Bahá'í has relatively few, Dr. Marcic seems to have decided she has ideological trouble with the word "chapel" in an old standard that here has become, oh, merciful heavens, "Church of Love."

Andrea Dora, the definite star of this cast, delivers a refreshingly tasteful monologue as activist Rosa Parks -- the longest spoken segment of the show -- in which Parks mentions that she was moved to action by recalling the strength, courage, and persistence of members of her family. Well, my mom sold concessions in a vaudeville house, and she didn't work hard all her life so that you and I would have to go to bad plays.

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women continues, at the time of this posting, through Sunday, January 16 [update: Tickets are currently on sale for performances through Saturday, January 22] (the run's been adjusted at least three times already) at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $42 to $52; order them here or call 602-252-7399.