Respect musical review

WINTER PARK — Respect, an Off-Broadway musical now making its Central Florida debut, has an intriguing dynamic. The first half of this production that just opened at The Winter Park Playhouse presents the audience with a fascinating journey through the history of women — and how songs reflected their status in society. Then the second half goes in another unique direction.

That history, shall we say, wasn’t always complimentary to women, particularly by today’s standards. From Betty Boop trying to idealize the “perfect” woman to Blues singers lamenting that despite the abuse they endure, they “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” the production of playwright Dorothy Marcic’s show is an astonishing look at just how far women have come, and there’s no more impactful reminder of that then the cast taking a moment to celebrate the fact that the nation’s vice president, Kamala Harris, is a woman.

But despite references to the political victories of historic figures like Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan, Respect is less of a political show than one about emotions and feelings — and in particular, how women have used music and songwriting to brilliantly convey their passions, pains and triumphs. It’s a play written by a woman and performed by four terrific women singers, but this is by no means a play only for women.

What is the Musical Respect?

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women is now being performed through April 24 at the community theater at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park. Under the direction of the always-creative director/choreographer Roy Alan, Respect is an energetic, upbeat, and endlessly fun look at how women have traditionally used songs to chart their status in the world. The early trend weren’t always pleasing: those girls-sure-love-their-guys songs like “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Tammy” would evolve into I’ll-sacrifice-anything-for-my-man songs like “As Long As He Needs Me” and “Stand By Your Man,” and the message became clear: without a man at her side, a girl’s got nothing, really.

But the show is also good at demonstrating that popular culture didn’t always reflect the reality for women, including the millions of women who worked our nation’s factories during World War II when men were off fighting in Europe, or the fact that the rise of the equality movement dated back decades before the 1960s and 1970s.

The second half of the show moves past the history lessons and focuses on something else: how music became an integral way for women to chart their feelings — in often extraordinarily complex ways. Janis Ian was charting her feelings about being the ugly duckling in “At Seventeen,” Janis Joplin was warning about taking a “Piece Of My Heart” and Nancy Sinatra was loudly proclaiming that if a man got in her way, “These Boots Were Made For Walking.” The show feels like so much more than just simply a string of popular songs brought together for one show, because the cast also recounts stories about growing up, trying to survive on your own, feeling the pain of rejection, standing up to men who let them down, and reflecting back on a lifetime of achievements. You’ll recognize these popular hits, but more importantly they take on an entirely new meaning and resonance with those stories as the backdrop.

Does This Production Of Respect Work?

Just as Marcic put a welcome spotlight on women’s accomplishments in both society and in pop culture through their songs, the Winter Park Playhouse uses this production as the platform for four dynamic singers, and know how to put the passion into their songs, making even the most familiar hits sound fresh and invigorating from their talents. Christine Brandt, who also serves as the show’s narrator, and Mahalia Gronigan, who did a great Janis Joplin in the Playhouse’s production of the musical Beehive, happily return to the Playhouse for this show; while Kathryn Kilgore and Nyeshia Smith make their much-welcome debut.

They each have some standout solo moments — Smith is electrifying singing “I Will Survive” and Gronigan has a lot of fun with “Whatever Lola Wants” — although the numbers where they harmonize are absolutely fantastic, particularly spirited songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” The show has humor, pathos, sentimentality and even a bit of defiance to spare, making it great fun from start to finish.

When Can You See Respect?

The Playhouse continues to have socially distanced seating and a mask requirement for all patrons, staff, cast and crew (the singers perform in clear face masks that can hardly be noticed by the audience). Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and select Wednesday, Friday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Resident Playhouse Music Director Christopher Leavy leads on piano with Sam Forrest on percussion, and Ned Wilkinson on multiple instruments.

Ticket prices are $45 evenings, $42 senior evenings, $36 matinees, $20 preview performances, and $20 for student and theatrical industry professionals. Group rates for 10 people or more available. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students 25 years and younger) can be purchased 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.

For more information and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 407-645-0145.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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