With a “One Night Only” opportunity to shine, DC native and Duke Ellington graduate YahZarah showcased her five-octave range as she teamed with a four-member ensemble to cover 30 of Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits in the tribute concert R.E.S.P.E.C.T. March 22.
The other star of the show was the venue, Capital One Hall, whose near-perfect acoustics and intimate 1,600 double-decker seating setup made the evening feel like a cozy midnight concert as a 900-member audience added the foot-stomping energy to match the six-piece band.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is in the middle of a national tour produced by Right Angle Entertainment and it is fast becoming the ultimate tribute to the legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
The full-stage live music production journeys through Aretha Franklin’s courageous life of love, tragedy, and triumph starring a live band, supreme vocalists, and a night full of music by one of the greatest artists of all time. “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” “Chain of Fools,” “Respect” — all of everyone’s favorite hits in one evening celebrating the iconic songstress!
With a playlist of nearly 30 of Aretha’s hits spanning five decades, the challenge for the cast of three female “hosts” — Megan Dawson, Chela Faulkner, and YahZarah — and the lone male host, Terrell Foster-James, was to strike a balance between the iconic classics we all associate Aretha with and the covers of Carle King’s “Natural Woman” that Aretha made her own.
What I and other members of the audience that I chatted with at intermission expected was how the hosts would take us on a history lesson of Aretha’s life from her gospel roots as the daughter of the Reverend C. L. Franklin, Detroit’s most powerful preacher, to her behind-the-scenes activist days supporting Martin Luther King III and the Civil Rights Movement that she helped bridge after his death.
The elevated concert stage with a three-level staircase backed by super-sized block letters spelling out R E S P E C T on a mezzanine riser was the other unexpected character in the show, as well as the five-piece live-on-stage band that gave the show a Motown Review level of excitement.
The show opened with the haunting lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as grainy black-and-white images of her funeral were projected on the second-story backdrop above the stage as a reminder of Aretha’s passing in 2018 at the age of 78.
After a spiritual tribute opening, Chela, Meghan, and YahZarah cranked up the energy and covered Aretha’s coming-of-age hits including “Dr. Feel Good”, “Day Dreaming,” and an Otis Redding standard, “Try a Little Tenderness”
As an emerging gospel singer, Aretha was introduced by her father to Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, and she embraced his civil rights anthem “A Change Is Coming” as the theater was transformed by historical footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the tragic highlights of the violent late 1960s period.
Then it took all three of the hosts’ powerful voices to lift the audience with “A Natural Woman,” which showcased YahZarah’s five-octave range backed by equal contributions from Meghan Dawson and Chela Faulkner with an unexpected piano contribution from Terrell Foster-James that brought the full power of the hosts’ talent as though Levy Stubbs and The Supremes were singing backup.
After intermission and a glittering wardrobe change, Chela Faulkner came out with a larger-than-life beige jumpsuit and heart-shaped purse that Aretha was known to carry as she took charge of her tour’s finances and demanded her performance fee “on the spot,” and kept it close until the show was over!
That’s when the hosts challenged the audience to get on their feet and dance to the upbeat lyrics of “Freeway of Love” and the women’s liberation anthem, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”
Her songs “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” became anthems of these movements for social change. But the audience was reminded of Aretha’s activism and financial support of Angela Davis’ cause as she pledged $250,000 towards her bail, as the lyrics of “Think” resonated through the premier acoustics of the Capital One Hall as just about every woman in the orchestra section was on her feet celebrating in a communal happy dance to close out the show.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. played March 22, 2023, produced by Alison Spiriti and Justin Sudds of Right Angle Entertainment, at Capital One Hall, 7750 Capital One Tower Rd, Tysons, VA. For information about upcoming events at Capital One Hall, click here.
The cast, band, and creative credits for R.E.S.P.E.C.T. on tour are online here.