RESPECT The Aretha Franklin Songbook show came to the Edinburgh Playhouse stage tonight, and is very obviously giving many of the fans of Aretha Franklin and her music exactly what they want, and exactly what the show promises – some great music.
This show is from the producers of the very successful “Thriller Live”, and having seen that show a few times over the years, I was confident that they would be putting some money and effort into RESPECT, and that confidence was not misplaced. RESPECT is a big show to tour and The London Community Gospel Choir and The Urban Soul Orchestra take up a lot of space on-stage. On the Playhouse stage tonight were 3 backing vocalists, 4 piece horns/brass section (and you need a good horn section to get that Atlantic records sound), 4 piece strings section (really like the use of a Cello here), rhythm guitar (doing a great job all show) and lead guitar, drums and percussion, keyboards x2 and of course the choir and our 4 “Ladies of Soul” – Cleopatra Higgins, Amber Riley, Mica Paris and Jaki Graham. This format of using different singers to give their vocal talents to songs perhaps best suited to them is a format used in “Thriller” and it works well here most of the time too.
I think we need to be clear exactly what type of a show RESPECT is. It is called “the Aretha Franklin Songbook” for a reason and apart from some very basic information, it is not the life story of Aretha Franklin, and there is nothing told here that Aretha fans will not already know. What this show does do though is cleverly root our show in a church setting and what biographical information we do get is told through the format of a preacher giving a sermon. Often this sermon is name-checking events and songs, but it is all done with a light touch and wisely stays away from Aretha’s private life and subjects such as her disagreements with other singers over the years (including of course Dionne Warwick). This format does have the obvious drawback of taking time away from the music, but we do need a linking narrative here, and with over 24 song classics in this show, there is obviously still plenty of time for the music.
The use format of a church setting is important here as Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 to August 16, 2018) was a minister’s daughter and grew up (like many soul/R & B singers over the generations have) singing in church. Church and music are inseparable elements in the story of Aretha’s life and songs and we open this show to on screen documentary footage of Aretha walking into church to sing the opening lines of “Amazing Grace”. We also get the classic image of Aretha from “The Blues Brothers” film. Swiftly from here, we move into the show proper and “Think” performed by Cleopatra Higgins (who remembers pop group Cleopatra?). For myself, I would have been happy to stay in church gospel mode listening to The London Community Gospel Choir as for me this sound is the root of all R & B and this choir is very good. I mean no disrespect here to our four singers, but this is a show that can be stripped down to its musical roots so easily and still retain the power of the music. The glitzy, glamour image of clinging low cut dresses and dresses with splits up to the waist was also for me at a stark contrast to the background church setting of this show and at times with the words of the songs, but I can also see the reason for wanting to give the more on stage performance image (but was some of this ever Aretha’s image?)
Aretha Franklin earned the title of “Queen of Soul” and over the decades of her recording career it was a title that no singer ever tried to claim from her (if ever they could have), and there is obvious respect here in every song from Cleopatra Higgins, Amber Riley, Mica Paris and Jaki Graham. Out of our four featured vocalists, all are British except Amber Riley (American) and there were at times subtle differences in performance styles here from Amber that perhaps brought us a little closer to Aretha in style than the others, but the different styles were interesting to listen too. At times though, for me, we were too often swapping soul and emotion that Aretha could portray in her songs for vocal volume, but that seems to be a trade-off all too common in music and theatre today.
Aretha Franklin was a very good songwriter, but also had like Frank Sinatra that talent to spot a great song by another writer and so often add something very different and special to it, and Aretha had some of the best songwriters in popular music history to choose from, writers of the calibre of Burt Bacharach (Say A little Prayer), Carole King (Natural Woman), John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins (Son of A Preacher Man). Not forgetting of course the classic RESPECT by Otis Redding and of course, these classics and many more are here in this show.
There are some interesting arrangements of songs here too. Most work well for me, but a few do not, and high on the does not list is “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. That is perhaps not the show’s fault though as this song for me has always been one of the most over-produced songs in musical history (even the original Simon and Garfunkel version), a beautiful song that never needed anything but its words and simple accompaniment. Also high on this list tonight was “Amazing Grace”. This a wonderful song that required nothing except power and emotion of the voices of the choir. There are many classic songs in this show too though, and some not too often heard ones such as “Try A Little Tenderness” (it always will be Otis Redding on this one for me though folks) and “Chain of Fools”.
For me, Aretha will always be the classic songs of her time with Atlantic records, and I was never a huge fan of the song that re-launched her career in the mid-1980s –“Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” but tonight, this was my favourite song performance from Cleopatra Higgins. Overall though, for me tonight, so many of my favourite performances came from Jaki Graham who got that emotion versus volume balance just right on so many songs. After seeing Mica Paris in so many stage musical productions over the last few years, it was nice to see her back on stage delivering soul classics.
At the end of the evening though (as all through the show) the audience loved every song. It is always hard though as a reviewer to figure out on shows like this how much of the audience response is for the show they are watching, or the songs that they love so much. At the end of the day though, does it matter which as long as the audience are having a great time for a few hours with the show and the songs of Aretha Franklin? Probably not.
Review by Tom King