Patch.com Coronado and La Mesa
By Pat Launer
Leigh Scarritt, along with two performers from recent Lamb’s Players productions, stars in “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women,” in downtown San Diego
La Mesa Patch:
Helix Grad Kelsey Venter Stars in Lyceum Theatre Production of ‘Respect’
Venter shares the stage with another La Mesa native, Nancy Snow Carr.
When you say the word ‘Respect,’ it conjures all kinds of images and associations. But if you SPELL the word, only one thing comes to mind: Aretha. That request for esteem and equality is at the heart of “Request: A Musical Celebration of Women.”
The show is the brainchild of Columbia University Management professor Dorothy Marcic , a former Fulbright scholar and delegate to the U.N. Economic and Social Development Summit.
It all began in 1999, when she was asked to make a presentation at a conference about the equality of men and women. She had recently begun using music in her management lectures, and she realized that the history of women in the 20th century was chronicled in Top 40 pop songs, from George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” She found that, as the role of women changed, the music shifted, and they influenced each other.
She chose 50 songs, and through them, told her story – about her own family and about women in general, moving, as she’s said, “from co-dependence to independence,” from being the property of men to being the president of corporations. She wrote a book about the connections, “Respect: Women in Popular Music,” and from there, it was a short hop to a musical theater creation.
At first she performed the piece herself, as a one-woman show. Then she set it free. Since 2004, it’s been performed all over the U.S. and in Australia. Now “Respect” is making its San Diego debut, at the Lyceum Theatre, under the direction of Sarah Shahinian , who was the assistant director for the Philadelphia production and the last national tour. Everyone involved in the local production (except the four-piece all-male band, under the musical direction of Cris O’Bryon ) is female.
Three of the four performers have strong ties to Coronado and/or La Mesa.
The Coronado Connection
At the center of the musical action is the Narrator, played by well-known, multi-talented musical theater performer (and frequent director) Leigh Scarritt, who grew up in Coronado, where she still lives.
“It’s a great place to raise a kid,” Scarritt says of her own upbringing, and her daughter’s. “It has a small-town feel, where people really care about their children and everyone knew each other. Years ago, we never locked the door.”
Besides being a charismatic performer (last seen at the Lyceum in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” and “The Threepenny Opera,” among many other productions at theaters around the county), Scarritt has trained almost all the young musical talent in town, through her Leigh Scarritt Productions.
In “Respect,” the petite powerhouse explains, “I play the playwright. I’m a college professor and I tell her story, about how the music inspired her, and helped her understand her family, and the broader history of women. The songs go back to 1900, and all the way up to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” which I get to sing in the second act.
“It’s brilliant how the show links the history with the music,” Scarritt continues. “And also tells a personal story.”
Though these are iconic songs (one of Scarritt’s favorite moments is when she gets to belt out Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”), she says “these fantastic performers are singing in tribute, not trying to impersonate.”
Scarritt’s most emotional moment in the show is singing Martina McBride’s heart-wrenching 2003 ballad, “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” which will of course make her think of her own daughter, Tiffany Jane, who was just named Blues Singer of the Year at the L.A. Music Awards. “I weep every single time she sings that,” says cast-mate Kelsey Venter.
La Mesa-Coronado Crossover, Part I
Two of the show’s other high-octane singers live in La Mesa; both have recently performed at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Kelsey Venter grew up in La Mesa, just down the street from SDSU, where she majored in Theater, after attending Maryland Avenue School, La Mesa Middle School and Helix High. Her high school drama teacher, Gregg Osborn, strongly influenced her decision to pursue a theater career.
“He really inspired me. And he’ll definitely be in my Tony Award acceptance speech,” she quips, referring to Broadway’s highest honor.
Venter’s parents still live in the house where she grew up. After college, she moved to San Francisco, to train in classical theater at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre.
“My first love is musical theater,” she says, “but I think it sometimes gets a bad rap. People consider it ‘fluffy,’ and say that ‘serious’ actors don’t do it. I wanted to become a ‘serious actor’ and still do musical theater!”
After six years in the Bay Area, she returned last year to play the female lead in the two-person drama, “Trying” at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Then she was cast as the ingénue, Miss Sarah Brown, in the Lamb’s production of the beloved musical classic, “Guys and Dolls,” which she says is ”one of the shows that made me want to be an actor.”
In “Respect,” Venter especially loves singing “It Must Be Him” (first recorded by Vicki Carr in 1967) and “As Long As He Needs Me,” from the musical “Oliver.”
A few years back, when she was just 18, one of her first professional jobs was in the ‘60s girls’ musical, “Beehive,” in which she appeared with fellow “Respect” performer, Lisa H. Payton.
“I guess I just can’t stop singing about women !, ” she says with a chuckle. Like all the performers in this show, she can’t stop talking about her cast-mates. They have truly bonded, and are in awe of each other’s talent. They all feel lucky to be working together.
La Mesa-Coronado Crossover, Part II
According to playwright Marcic , the phase that came after the ‘dependent ingénue’ (Venter’s role) in the evolution of women was the ‘young adult cynic,’ and in “Respect,” that role is assumed by Nancy Snow Carr. She’s lived in La Mesa since 2008, moving here from Missouri, where she and her husband, gifted actor/singer Geno Carr, taught at Stevens College. A native of North Carolina who got her start on the national tours of “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Buddy Holly Story,” Carr came to San Diego to attend SDSU, which has the country’s only Master of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre. The couple chose to live in La Mesa, to be close to State.
“We love it,” says Carr. “We love being able to walk to the village.” Their favorite La Mesa restaurant is Gingham (“Southern comfort food!”), and Nancy is partial to the boutique, Wildflowers.
The couple spent a Semester at Sea, traveling the world and teaching theater on board, and they can’t wait to do it again. Recently, they appeared together in the Lamb’s Players Theatre productions of “A Servant of Two Masters” and “The Music Man.” And now, she has “Respect.”
“My favorite moments are singing the 1902 song, ‘Bill Bailey’ and the 1940 Rodgers and Hart classic, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ from ‘Pal Joey.’ The part that warms my heart is the Whitney Houston song, “The Greatest Love of All,’ which we do in beautiful three-part harmony. It’s the whole story behind the show. We find our strength within, and here are these women supporting me. It’s a wonderful moment. I hope the audience feels it, and sees that it’s not an act for us. We really do love and support each other.”
“In the end,” says Leigh Scarritt, “the show’s message is ‘Take responsibility for your own happiness. Be all you can be. See what women before you have done. It’s all about empowerment.
“And don’t think the show is for women only,” Scarritt continues. The promotional materials say the show is ‘For Girls (& Guys) Who Just Wanna Have Fun.’ “It’s for men who love women and women who love their female friends.”
“RESPECT: A Musical Celebration of Women” begins previews on April 18 and officially opens on April 17. It could run for a long time. At the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza.
Performances are Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 6:30pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets ($42-$57) are available at www.lyceumevents.org/; 619-544-1000