Aretha Franklin (composer-singer-pianist), the “Queen of Soul,” had an astonishing six-decade career (1954-2017) during which she received 18 Grammy Awards and 44 nominations. She was the first female recording artist to win a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance (she won this award eight times) as well as the first female recording artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She received a Grammy Living Legend Honor and a Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal for Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for her “indelible contribution to American music and culture.” Ms. Franklin also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honorary degrees from many universities including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. A post office building and a street in Detroit are named after her, and two subway stations in New York honor her name. She also appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine.
The ballads and up tempo songs were sung with emotion and grit and you would be hard-pressed to find better singers for Aretha’s songbook.
Ms. Franklin has sold over 75 million recordings worldwide and has been repeatedly lauded by “Billboard” and “Rolling Stone” magazine as one of the greatest singers of all time. She is the subject of a biography, biopic, documentary and a National Geographic “Genius” series After her death in 2018, there were many musical tributes and celebrations of her life and career, of which “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” is the latest, starting its worldwide tour last fall. The show presents Aretha’s life chronologically through her music and features four singers and five musicians.
The singers or “hosts” are Meghan Dawson, Terrell Foster-James, Chela Faulkner, and YahZarah as “Aretha.” They sing various solos, duets, group numbers, and serve as narrators. Their vocal presentations are unique, enhanced by harmony, dramatic facial expressions, very lively movement, and dancing. The singers encourage the audience to sing along, clap, and wave. The audience not only responded to their requests, but many got up on their feet to express their enjoyment. The ballads and up tempo songs were sung with emotion and grit and you would be hard-pressed to find better singers for Aretha’s songbook. Each singer had a unique style, but Aretha’s inspiration was evident throughout. Her biggest hits, as well as many of her cover songs, were included which added to the musical nostalgia of the program since they reminded the audience of the original artists as well. The musicians, also featured in solo spots, are Billy White (keyboards), Michael Williams (keyboards), TJ Griffin (drums), Kenneth “Gypsy” Simpson (guitar), and Osei Kweku (music director and bass). Their accomplished arrangements and playing provided sound support for the singers.
The creative team enhanced the concert presentation. The set—consisting of a riser with the large white letters RESPECT across the top, with an upstage screen—offered the cast multiple positions from which to sing and dance. Matthew Deinhart’s lighting—with many colored spotlights moving back and forth over the singers, and the large letters amplified by light bulbs—added glitz and glamour to the show. Taylor Edelle Stuart’s videos were interesting and effective. The archival black and white footage of African-American life in the 1950s and 1960s that complemented the biographical narrative were in contrast to the kaleidoscope of colorful patterns projected as background to the music. I did find it a bit strange that the very first video was footage of Aretha’s casket being carried into the church for her funeral.
Josh Liebert’s sound design, with speakers situated all around the proscenium, kept the music and singing at just the right volume without being obtrusively loud. Antonio Consuegra’s costumes were simple—basic black, white, and silver sequined attire that shined and sparkled under the lights. His addition of Aretha’s customary purse to her character’s costume was a nice touch.
The confidence and strength of Ms. Franklin’s voice remind us of what she championed through her music: civil rights, women’s empowerment, disability rights, health care access, and environmental protection. She did not take support for these issues for granted. She was a musical force, blending gospel, jazz, blues and R&B idioms, embodying the whole spectrum of African-American life in her era, and, as her signature song proclaimed, demanded respect. I came out of this concert and looked up into the clear night sky. Somewhere out there was Asteroid 249516. Upon discovery in 2014, it was named for Aretha Franklin.
Running time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
“R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – A Celebration of the Music of Aretha Franklin” was performed on March 23, 2023 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information on upcoming productions and to purchase tickets, visit here. Masks are optional.