Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
First, about that subject matter. LaChiusa selected and gave a mini-musical to each of four American first ladies, all from the mid-twentieth century: Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Jackie Kennedy. To be honest, the Bess Truman segment is really a comedy sketch built around one joke, though wonderfully executed. Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Kennedy are secondary, though vital, characters in their pieces, leaving only Mrs. Eisenhower as the full center of her piece. But that doesn't lessen the highly imaginative conceits of the entire work, a mix of history and fantasy that inflates each of those three segments.
Now, about the creator behind the show, John Michael LaChiusa. First Lady Suite was mounted by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater in 1993. It ran only thirty-two performances but was well received and put LaChiusa on the map as a formidable theater composer. A year later, his Hello Again at Lincoln Center lasted 101 performances. Since then he has had eight shows open Off-Broadway, three on Broadway, and numerous shows at regional theater companies. His musical The Wild Party opened on Broadway in 2000, directed by then white-hot George Wolfe, with a to-die-for cast: Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt, Toni Colette, making her much-praised Broadway musical debut. It fizzled.
LaChiusa has a penchant for challenging subject matter, be it depressing–Marie Christine, based on the Medea myth–morally defiant, like The Wild Party; or arcane, such as Queen of the Mist, about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. His songs have a sharp edge, often strikingly beautiful and possessing great wit, but not what a lot of people expect when they go to a musical.
At any rate, we at last have First Lady Suite, with a score that has an abundance of beauty and wit. The show opens with a prelude (added in a 2004 Off-Off-Broadway revival) that sets the context of our first ladies and the paradox of being privileged and powerless. The first segment, "Over Texas," takes place on Air Force One. The plane is in flight from Washington to Dallas in November, 1963, bearing President and Mrs. Kennedy, along with their staff, including Jackie Kennedy's secretary Mary Gallagher (Christine Wade) and the president's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln (Abilene Olson).
Gallagher is the focus. She is excited about flying on Air Force One, but disheartened by her work, which consists of helping the First Lady find her hat or her gloves, and other mindless, inconsequential tasks. In contrast, Lincoln, sitting across the aisle, is busy working on a speech President Kennedy is to give in Dallas after the motorcade, to which Mary hasn't even been invited. Lincoln raises a toast to "Four More Years." Gallagher is not so sure. When Mary nods off, Jackie Kennedy (Sara Sawyer) appears in her dream and presages the events that await them on the ground in Dallas. Mary awakens from her dream, inexplicably reassured.
Next is "Where's Mamie," a fantasy. Mamie Eisenhower (Sawyer) pouts over husband Ike's absence on her birthday due to a foolish racist disturbance at Little Rock Central High School. She was already peeved by Ike's caution not to walk around with a glass in her hand, "even if it's only ginger ale, because you know what they'll say." She makes her own way to Little Rock bent on settling things so Ike can come home. There she meets Marian Anderson (Ilah Raleigh), the famed soprano and civil rights activist, who demands that the president take decisive action in Little Rock, crying out for change, because "Old Rules Are Old Rules." Impressed, Mamie coaxes Marian to join her in appealing to Ike. Mamie recalls her life during the war–"I waited at home/ got good at bridge/ played so much bridge/ I waited alone." They find Ike (Paul Coate), but it is now 1943 in North Africa. The General is dealing with the war–and his driver, Kay Summersby (Wade). Ike reassures Mamie, promising "Tomorrow I Will Love You More."
After the brief "Olio" in which Bess Truman (Greta Grosch) disinterestedly promotes "first daughter" Margret's (Olson) ambitions, we arrive at the final piece, "Eleanor Sleeps Here." Eleanor Roosevelt (Sawyer) is up in an airplane flown by Amelia Earhart (Wade), with the First Lady fawning over the aviatrix like a schoolgirl with a crush. However, Eleanor's "special friend"–most historians agree that they were lovers–Lorena Hickock (Grosch) is the central figure in this segment. Hick, as she was called, is a straight-talking tough gal, but softens when describing her relationship with Eleanor ("Eleanor's Hand"). Hick takes credit for encouraging the First Lady to pursue adventures and take risks–from which, as First Lady, she was protected while Hick was not. The segment is both deeply poignant and funny, and includes the show's most beautiful song, "When Eleanor Smiles."
Theatre Elision always assembles actors with beautiful voices to suit their music-driven work, and First Lady Suite is no exception. All of the six actors on stage have excellent voices, each befitting the roles they play. Wade creates a vivid portrait of Mary Gallagher, discontent with her life and recognizing that her privileges have been superficial ones. Sawyer's canny portrayal of Mamie Eisenhower makes the first lady into a doppelganger for the dysfunction lying beneath the complacency of mid-1950s America–or at least white America. Grosch makes a hilarious bit of her short stay as Bess Truman and goes on to convey both the tough exterior and yearning emotional needs of Lenora Hickock. She even milks laughs out of a single word as Lady Bird Johnson, in a brief appearance during "Over Texas."
Music director Harrison Wade is the seventh cast member, off to the side while playing the entire score on keyboard. He has a wonderful ear for LaChiusa's complex music which he plays with grace and precision and is a tireless performer as he alone is never over stage. Theatre Elision would be well advised to have his fingers highly insured.
Lindsay Fitzgerald has directed the production with a sure hand, allowing for the comedy as well as the emotional chords to come through. Fitzgerald also designed the well-conceived costumes. I was particularly taken by Mamie Eisenhower's polka dotted shirtwaist and Lenora Hicks' old-west flavored duds. Laina Grendle designed the lighting, which creates variations in the feel of the open spaced-set, filled with only a few pieces of furniture for each scene, while Uriyah Dalman's projections provide elaborations on their locations.
LaChiusa has written a follow up called First Daughter Suite that features mother-daughter pairs in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush families. Perhaps Theatre Elision will satisfy those with an appetite for more of LaChiusa's work (count me in!) by staging that in some future season. But for now, this intrepid company has given us the gift of a well-staged First Lady Suite, that is beautifully sung, while realizing its creator's wit and probing consideration of the line between power and position in America.
First Lady Suite, runs through May 6, 2023, at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. Tickets: general admission, $38 ; $seniors and neighbors, 32; $students and industry colleagues, $25. Wednesday, May 3 performance is half price. For tickets and information, please visit www.elisionproductions.com.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Michael John LaChiusa, Director and Costume Design: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director and Pianist: Harrison Wade; Audio and Projection Engineer: Uriyah Dalman; Lighting Design and /Stage Manager: Laina Grendle
Cast: Kyler Chase (understudy), Paul Coate (Presidential Aide/Dwight D. Eisenhower), Julia Ennen (understudy), Greta Grosch (Lady Bird Johnson/Bess Truman/Lorena Hickock), Abilene Olson (Evelyn Lincoln/Margaret Truman), Ilah Raleigh (Marian Anderson), Sara Sawyer (Jackie Kennedy/Mamie Eisenhower/Eleanor Roosevelt), Christine Wade (Mary Gallagher/Kay Summersby/Amelia Earhart)