Patricia Harrelson

"What would be the soundtrack of your life?" asks Dorothy, the narrator of "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women."

This provocative question is worthy fodder for an animated dinner conversation. As the lead line in the production currently underway at Sierra Repertory Theatre's East Sonora venue, it's not only provocative, it also sets the conversational tone of the revue that unfolds.

The revue is unique in the way it blends memoir and research into storytelling interludes between songs to reveal a story about women embedded in our popular music. Each song, as well as the interludes between them, touches a nerve. Synapses fire the memory bank; dizzying emotion spills forth in a speculative waterfall - at least for women of a certain age.

Was the Top 40 really a major influence in my life choices? Were there women in my life who offered alternatives to what was blaring from my transistor radio?

These are likely the questions that Dr. Dorothy Marcic asked as she took the steps that shaped "Respect: A Musical Journey of Women."

The first step occurred when Marcic was a professor at Vanderbilt University working on a presentation about equality between men and women. She was experimenting with using music in her work which led to the research which ultimately laid the groundwork for "Respect."

Her presentation turned into a book, which turned into a one-woman show, which evolved into the four women-musical production that Brian Swasey now directs for SRT.

Grabbing anecdotes from her own family to elucidate her historical research and beg questions about women's history in the U.S., Marcic created a story to shape her musical walk across the 20th century.

I was actually reminded of Sonora storyteller Cynthia Restivo when Dorothy, in the person of Nancy O'Bryan, took to the stage.

O'Bryan engages with the audience in the manner of a storyteller, giving Dorothy's narration warmth and intimacy. An accomplished vocalist, O'Bryan provides lovely segues for the three women who perform most of the 60 pop songs - songs that divulge the course of women from the days of corsets to Britney Spears.

Swasey found female vocalists with terrific versatility who harmonize exquisitely in this revelatory look at how music reflects - and permeates - social norms.

Courtney Nolan Smith, the most charismatic of the three featured singers, channels Betty Boop and Lucille Ball to illustrate some of the inane models woman faced. Smith's comic renditions delight the audience but also provoke an infuriating undercurrent: Was this cartoonish sex symbol really how women wished to be?

But Marcic's wisecracking commentary reminds us that it is best to laugh at the past, and Smith makes laughing easy. A highlight occurs when she entangles herself in a phone cord while singing "It Must Be Him."

Ebullient, sexy, and adroit, Smith is bold and delicious when the stage is all hers but also melds magnificently with Tracie Franklin and Kacey Coppola when the trio works in unison.

Smith is the first to put the stomp in "These Boots Are Made for Walking" but woman power roars in this Nancy Sinatra favorite when Franklin and Coppola join her.

The sassy and soulful Franklin deposits a bit of black history into the story with a blues medley and later portraying Rosa Parks singing the activist song "Turn Me Around." And Franklin exudes some decisive meanness when the trio sings "Hard Hearted Hannah" (the vamp of Savannah).

Coppola's lovely mezzo voice launches this history about women with "Bird in a Gilded Cage." The chorus of this sentimental ballad popular in 1900 posits a truth that threads its way through the evening: "You may think she's happy and free from care/She's not, though she seems to be."

The happy face is alive and well in tunes like "Love and Marriage" and "Baked a Cake," songs that teases the foot to tap and the mouth to smile. But the tune changes ever so much in Coppola's seductive rendition of "Whatever Lola Wants" as she croons "Give in, give in, you'll never win."

Long, lanky Coppola swooshes us forward, her blonde hair swinging smartly, past the "Stand By Your Man" phase into the "You Don't Own Me" era.

Men take a back seat to women in this production in an apropos reversal of the expression "Behind every great man there is a great women."

Skillfully harmonized medleys abound under the direction of Mark Seiver as the all-male band plays off stage. The fairly simple set design by Randall Enlow and minimalist yet inventive costuming by Jose M. Rivera keep the women front and center as the focal point of the show.

The video design, presumably the work of director Swasey in conjunction with lighting designer Christopher Van Tuyl, augments the story and adds cheeky comic flare.

This is first and foremost a show about women - an historical, sometimes hysterical, highly enjoyable romp.

However, that's not to say that it's not for guys. Your guy will surely enjoy "Respect," even if he laughs at different parts and gets a quizzical look when the women send up whoops of delight.

This celebration of women is fun and family-friendly.

And if the conversation on the deck at the opening night party is any indication, the production is also apt to prompt engaging discussion about the influence of popular music.

How did these songs get under our skin and travel to our heart of hearts? For better or worse, Marcic demonstrates that they are part of us now, unapologetically part of our musical journey.

The production runs through Sept. 1. For tickets, call 532-3120 or get online at www.sierrarep. org.