A curious mix of dining and drama, any occurrence of excellence in either category is not to be expected due to the curious nature of the animal. Making "comfort food" and "comfort theater" palatable to bus groups and an older clientele is an art form in itself.
Despite these drawbacks, yours truly- the intrepid culture vulture that I am- found myself in Chanhassen, Minnesota last Sunday to attend a production of
RESPECT The Musical Journey of Women.
"Combining excerpts of 60 songs with women's own stories of finding dreams, lost loves, relationships, entering the workforce, gaining independence..."
This revue should have been right up my alley; pop hits made famous by women, demonstrating the growth of women's independence over the years. The show was written by Dorothy Marcic, an academic from Vanderbilt University and is currently in production at several venues in the United States.
But first things first. The Chanhassen Dinner Theater is actually a complex, with three stages, dinner is served either in the theater or, in this case, in one of several dining rooms. One area even had original Hogarth prints lining the walls (although an innocent diner might lose his appetite after looking at some of the prints- including the series The Harlot's Progress.) The food was fair, if somewhat bland. I hoped it would not be an omen for things to come.
The show was nothing if not ambitious. In addition to the music there was a narration and slide show (!) portraying the writer's family history(!!), the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement, all interspersed with various iconic pop culture and political images. I suspect the germination of this production was in a lecture series. The awkwardness of the title hints at the lack of focus of the author.
The music was familiar, with show tunes and standards along with more modern pop tunes. Those numbers that were fully developed (I Wanna be Loved by You, God Bless the Child, At Seventeen, Whatever Lola Wants) were the most fulfilling, but many numbers were truncated to pointlessness. I've always been a bit confounded that pop tunes, which are distinguished by a catchy "hook" and little else, are usually eviscerated of even that by musical arrangers in these sorts of medleys. Even worse was the fact many of the verses, including those which actually had something to say about the subject, were missing. The band was competent if perfunctory. The choreography was good throughout and gave the show a lift- it was a welcome respite from the narration.
In a production such as this, the singers really make or break the show. This is where I was pleasantly surprised, at last finding the excellence that I hadn't dared hope for. Of the four principals, Seri Johnson, Andrea Uselman and Timotha Lanae are veterans of this circuit: professional, competent, but definitely from the category of "actors who sing." Then there was the newcomer, Emily Rose Skinner, who is simply a great singer, a fine actor, and a tremendous stage presence. She belongs in a better production. Her range, both in her voice and in her acting, is terrific. All of her solo numbers were high points and in her duets it was obvious that she is in a class apart.
It is fun to see someone with an exceptional talent perform well and lift the whole show. Despite all the drawbacks, I'll recommend RESPECT BUT- if you are having dinner, avoid the Walleye!