Review: 'Respect' celebrates women's contributions to pop culture

03:02 PM, May 06, 2013

From left, Jenna Paulus, Sara Laursen, Carlita Victoria and Davida Bloom star in Respect. (CAMPBELL PHOTOGRAPHY//provided by Downstairs Cabar)/


Written By Leah Stacy

If you go

What:
Respect: A Musical Journey of Women.
When: Through June 2, with performances this week at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $26 to $39.
For tickets: (585) 325-4370 or downstairscabaret.org.

Hot on the heels of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book release and just in time for Mother’s Day, Downstairs Cabaret Theatre opened Respect: A Musical Journey of Women.

The production, through June 2 at the Winton Place location, began as the academic research of Dorothy Marcic, a college professor at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. After she wrote her book, RESPECT: Women and Popular Music, she felt there was more to explore, so in 1999 she began developing a musical.

It became more of a revue than a production with a thoroughly thought-out storyline, though Marcic wrote her voice into the show as a narrator to guide the journey. Classic American icons abound as supporting characters — from Billie and Lucy to Marilyn and Whitney.

The music is chronological, beginning in 1900 with the parlor song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and ending in 2002 with “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Ultimately, it’s the hefty responsibility of a four-member, all-female ensemble and four-piece onstage band to take the audience on this journey — and most of the time, they do it successfully.

Davida Bloom, associate theater professor at The College at Brockport, leads the cast as the narrator, providing a thread of conversation with the audience. Her manner is frank and genuine, often eliciting reactions from the crowd as she invites them to remember Barbie or sing along to “Que Sera Sera.” Bloom’s warm stage presence more than makes up for a lack of strong vocals on her few solos, and her rendition of “Beautiful” had women around the room nodding and dabbing their eyes.

The remaining ensemble members — Sara Laursen, Jenna Paulus and Carlita Victoria — play several different women from throughout the years.

Laursen is the ideal ensemble member: She delivers enthusiastic, shining solos and takes a supportive backseat while others have the spotlight. Her pleasing vocals were cut short by a sound system malfunction during Act I, but the band expertly adjusted levels and Laursen handled the mistake without a wince. Her Betty Boop and “These Boots are Made for Walking” numbers had audience members smiling and laughing.

Paulus is clearly trained in musical theater and opera, and while her voice soars on compositions of that nature, she’s less enjoyable during rock ballads. Her bubbly personality lends energy to a long show — notably in “Whatever Lola Wants” — but sometimes doesn’t adjust when others should have the spotlight.

Victoria, who is also the dance captain, has an easy confidence, whether she’s dancing or belting out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Her passionate Rosa Parks monologue is the first weighty acting in the show, and she closes it with a soaring a capella rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

The set is simple, with plenty of open-stage area for impromptu dance numbers and costume changes. Three brightly-colored, round screens reminiscent of a ’60s variety show hang on the back wall, consistently lit with photos from days gone by during musical numbers. A single violet lamppost sits stage right, just beyond Marcic’s office desk. Costumes are simple.

The onstage band can’t be overlooked, either. With only a 10-minute intermission break, John Bronston leads a four-piece band (alternately Michael Klein, David Wright, Greg Ludek, Paul Chappell and Greg Gascon) through snippets of more than 60 songs in three hours.

Overall, director Sarah Shahinian presents a show that leaves audiences nostalgic and smiling. Though the journey gets bogged down with a few heavy-handed moments about romantic relationships (due almost entirely to the playwright’s personal life), Respect is a fun, light show that women and men of all ages can appreciate.