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THEATER REVIEW 24 Words: The Equal Rights Musical
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Book and lyrics by Charles Kouri, music by Gary Bragg, additional songs by Dean Schlabowske. At: LingoStudio Productions at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. ( March 22 show at Steppenwolf 1700 ) Tickets: $25. Runs through: March 22

In an interview, Charles Kouri, book writer and lyricist for this history lesson framed in a musical revue, expressed concern over the number of young people who approach gender issues as if the Equal Rights Amendment introduced to Congress in 1972 hadn't failed to pass into law.

Nowadays, its truths seem self-evident—"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"—but these 24 words ( cited in the show's title ) have been the source of bitter controversy for centuries.

The premise for this LingoStudio production is a campaign meeting in support of the legislation under scrutiny. The agenda begins with Second City-style sketches tracing a chronology of Women's crusades for full citizenship, from 1775, where their part in ensuring our nation's independence is not enough to earn them a place in its constitution, to 1868, when emancipation guarantees freedom regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude—but only to men. More recent advances in female empowerment are also cited, in all their ambiguities—e.g., Mary Kay cosmetics, which encouraged women to run their own business franchises, but reinforced sexist stereotypes with its how-to-get-a-man advertising. ( "But I don't LIKE boys!" protests a reluctant customer. )

Didacticism soon gives way to a more diverse view of the quest for equality, mostly expressed in songs by Gary Bragg, Dean Schlabowske and the aforementioned Kouri: An Asian girl wistfully laments the compromises her culture demands of her on "See-Through Me." while a cross-dressing gay male recounts the Village bar scene leading up to Stonewall in "Goddessland." The Vietnam War is referenced in a wife entreating her draftee husband, "Come Home to Me." "I Won't Be Your Honey ( But I'll Be Your Bumblebee )" invokes country ballads, while "Smoke Break Tango" presents us with a bevy of secretaries silently vowing revenge on their oppressors.

The event currently spanning an hour and 40 minutes is still in need of some editing—chiefly of material contributing little more than reiteration of injustices and declarations of unity—to make the most of power anthems like the impassioned "Back To Even" and the call-and-response finale "Sister"( "Say it Loud! We Are Equal!" ). That said, the 10-member ensemble's enthusiasm and versatility—many doubling on orchestral instruments augmenting Jeffrey Poindexter's piano—are enough to render this rally in celebration of progress ( and the battles still ahead ) as proactively stirring as the "Love-Rock" op-eds of an earlier generation.

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