No doubt about it: "Respect," a "Girl Em-Powered Musical" that examines women's roles in American popular music, packs plenty of entertainment value. In the show's West Coast premiere at the El Portal's Forum Theatre, a crack ensemble performs a plethora of popular standards, from 1900 to the present, from the sad laments of fluffy female victims ("A Bird in a Gilded Cage") to the angry anthems of women who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore ("I Am Woman" and "You Don't Own Me").
Indeed, those women in the audience who recall the heady days of bra-burning and Equal Rights Amendment activism before their societal roles were once again transmogrified by Paris Hilton and "Girls Gone Wild" videos will probably get a few goose bumps from the sheer feminist brio that informs the evening.
That said, the heavy hand of academia is a persistent drag upon the proceedings. "Respect" apparently had its genesis in a one-woman show, written and performed by Dorothy Marcic, a former Fulbright scholar and university professor who filtered the broad spectrum of her subject through the lens of her family history.
As the creator-playwright of "Respect," Marcic continues her "lecture" through the autobiographical character of Dorothy (Susan Carr George), who makes frequent references to Marcic's various family members while a large upstage screen flashes photographs from Marcic's family album.
That conceit might have charmed in a solo context. For this ensemble piece, it merely confuses. Dorothy persistently refers to antecedents that remain obscure and ancestors who are never sufficiently introduced. In Peter J. Loewy's occasionally unwieldy staging, George is often marginalized, remaining offstage for much of the action or, worse, acting as a de facto janitor, cleaning up props strewn by her fellows.
When George gets a chance to sing, however, she's quite winning, as are the other performers: N'Raca, Jackie Seiden and Alet Taylor. Aided by Jim Vukovich's splendid musical direction and Lee Martino's lively choreography, these "em-powered girls" all get the opportunity to shine. Ivy Thaide's subtly amusing costumes and Victoria Profitt's unobtrusively functional set largely compensate for the garish flatness of Edwin Pleitez's lighting design.
Seiden is a real find, an angel-faced ingénue with a brass-plated voice when she belts that would do Sophie Tucker proud. And Taylor, a born comedian with a lyrical soprano, is a must-see hoot whose hyper-histrionic Act 1 closer, "It Must Be Him," reduces herself -- and her audience -- to limp hysterics.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun