July 26--Sierra Repertory Theatre didn't set out to make 2013 The Year of the Woman. It was just trying to put together an entertaining lineup with a blend of big, small, new and established works.
That so many of its shows involved strong female characters is a coincidence, managing director Sara Jones said, but she's delighted it worked out as it did.
The Sonora-based company follows the success of "Church Basement Ladies," "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" and a production of "Oklahoma!" with a more-spirited-than-usual Laurie, with "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" opening a five-week run today.
"I wish I could say it was a concerted effort," Jones said. "It's something to get excited about when you find a play that does focus on women. I'm not sure this year we went out searching, but when we found 'Respect,' we got super excited right away."
Her husband, producing director Dennis Jones, found the script and Sara Jones and artistic director Scott Viets happily agreed to add it to the season.
"I do have the good fortune to work with two other executive directors who are pretty darned enlightened. That's a good place to start," Sara Jones said.
From there, they hired New York-based Brian Swasey to direct the show that follows the evolution of 20th century women through Top-40 music of each decade.
"The interesting thing about this particular musical review is it is based on a book where Dorothy Marcic (a Vanderbilt University professor) did research on songs of the century to find out how they related to women's change and growth in society," Swasey said. "She saw how they correlated, how lyrics sort of changed with the times as women's roles changed throughout history."
Some 60 songs tell the story of women, opening with "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" and "Bird in a Gilded Cage." Over the succeeding decades, Top-40 songs by or about women show a progression from dependence -- in 1962's "Someone to Watch Over Me," and 1963's "I Will Follow Him" -- to women swept up in the 1960s cultural revolution in "You Don't Own Me" and "These Boots are Made for Walking," to the 1970s anthems "I Am Woman" and "I Will Survive."
"It's kind of unique," said Sara Jones, who has only read the script, not seen a performance. "When you see a Johnny Cash revue, you're thinking about Johnny Cash's life and his struggles. You may enjoy songs that are your favorites, but you don't think about your personal connection as much."
The emphasis is on the music and its message, so the stage is simple. The cast is made up of four women and a live, four-person band.
Nancy O'Bryan, who was Karen in the recent production of "Church Basement Ladies," narrates as Dorothy, and is joined by fellow singers Kacey Coppola, who was in last year's "Ring of Fire"; Tracie Franklin, who returns to SRT for the first time since 2000; and Courtney Nolan-Smith, a New York performer who has worked with Swasey.
Musical director Mark Seiver is joined on stage by Dennis Dragan on bass, Mark Kreuzer on drums and Josh Weeks on guitar.
"Revues are always a different sort of animal," said Swasey, 40, who moved to New York from his native Maine as an actor and now is focused on directing and choreography. "They are deceptively more difficult than you think they are for the people on stage. It's a lot of material for the actors to learn, and the challenge is to make it visually interesting. You have to keep it moving so nobody says, 'No, not that again.'"
In addition to the rapid-fire delivery of songs and dialogue of the women, the show includes projections of various iconic women through the years, as varied as Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe and Rosa Parks.
"The show depends on the woman playing Dorothy," Swasey said. "She drives the show, keeps things moving on to the next point in history. That person needs to keep us engaged, interested in what she has to say. The audience should hear the point she's trying to make, not just see it as a cute revue."
Although, if audience members just want to take the musical journey and tap along or sing along, that's fine with Swasey, too. And men shouldn't be intimidated.
"It's relatable for men," Swasey said. "Points in it are very interesting as far as how women's roles have changed, how song messages and lyrics have changed. ... Everyone is going to relate to the music whether they listen to the message or just enjoy it. The last three songs are '70s iconic pop songs everyone will know."
Even Swasey, who was born in 1973, knows them, although he grew up listening to 1950s and '60s music.
He discovered a lot of meaningful music written in other decades all tightly connected in "Respect," named for a song made famous by a formidable woman who played her own role in advancing women, and women's music, as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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