Review: ‘First Lady Suite’

Evelyn Lincoln, Mary Gallagher, Ike's Chauffeur,

Evelyn Lincoln, Mary Gallagher, Ike’s Chauffeur,

Margaret Truman … Debra Stricklin

A Presidential Aide, Ike,

Bess Truman … David Wasson

Jacqueline Kennedy,

Amelia Earhart … Maureen Moore

Lady Bird Johnson,

Mamie … Alice Playten

Marian

Anderson … Priscilla Baskerville

Hick (Lorena Hickok) … Carol Woods

Michael John LaChiusa sets himself an unlikely goal in “First Lady Suite,” and scores. The prospect of four musical portraits of former first ladies — all performed as mini-operettas — would seem precious at best, foolhardy at worst. But LaChiusa’s words and music should convert all doubters.

LaChiusa, a relative newcomer, succeeds where even Stephen Sondheim failed. “First Lady Suite,” populated with historical figures connected to the White House, is bound to draw comparisons to Sondheim’s “Assassins,” and, while it may be less ambitious, it hits its targets with considerably greater frequency.

Where “Assassins” was a pastiche of moods and musical styles, “Suite” sticks to both light opera and a tone that remains playful even when the drama turns dark.

As written by LaChiusa, the first ladies presented here — Jacqueline Kennedy , Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt — continually are at odds with their public personae. While they aspire to, and achieve, the stuff of legend, they carry with them their all-too-human quirks and failings.

LaChiusa paints these personal triumphs in surprising and clever ways. The first of the quartet, “Over Texas,” takes place on board Air Force One as Jacqueline Kennedy flies to meet her husband in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But LaChiusa smartly makes the first lady’s exasperated secretary, Mary Gallagher, the focus of the piece. Given a terrific comic performance by Debra Stricklin, Gallagher is shown confiding to another secretary about her frustration with her boss’ seeming pettiness.

“You’d think the world was coming to an end over combs and a hat,” Gallagher sings. But soon comes the twist: During a nap, Gallagher is visited in her dreams by Jackie, who foretells the imminent tragedy, displaying both the strength and grace that she would show in its wake.

A similar hard-edged compassion runs through the entire “Suite,” although LaChiusa’s intelligent writing is not above a wink at the audience. “Come and ride in the motorcade, Mary,” Gallagher is told. “It’ll be fun.”

Both LaChiusa and director Kirsten Sanderson show a canny knack for putting the first ladies in the most telling situations, times and places. In “Where’s Mamie?” the baby-voiced Mrs. Eisenhower (Alice Playten) greets the audience from her frilly, oversized bed in a pink nightgown that matches everything else in her ridiculously feminine boudoir. “I’m no old Bess Truman with a prune pit for a face,” she sings in a Betty Boop lilt. “I’m no Eleanor Roosevelt — I know my place.”

And her place, audience soon finds out, is firmly second-class, White House or not. “Negroes want to integrate? Fine by me,” she sings naively, soon adding, “I never get involved, publicly or otherwise. That’s the rule.”

The rule is challenged when opera singer Marian Anderson (Priscilla Baskerville), mysteriously appearing in Mamie’s bedroom, begs for the first lady’s intervention in the integration crisis at Little Rock, Ark., and the two women embark on a magical journey back in time to World War II, ostensibly so that Anderson can meet with the future president to warn him of dark days to come.

But the temporal trip has an unexpected result: Mamie witnesses her husband’s rumored affair with his chauffeur, Kay Summersby (Stricklin), and realizes the personal cost of her don’t ask-don’t tell credo.

Third up is a 10-minute joke that offers the broadest humor of the musical. Bess Truman (played comically, bordering on cruelly, by David Wasson in drag) reluctantly introduces her musically untalented daughter Margaret (Stricklin) and proceeds to cough, sigh and otherwise interrupt the ear-offending performance that follows. All of which leaves poor Margaret in tears. This plays much funnier than it reads, and despite its short length leaves an indelible image of the no-nonsense Bess.

LaChiusa and Sanderson save the best for last. “Eleanor Sleeps Here” is a fanciful imagining of what occurred during Eleanor’s legendary flight with Amelia Earhart in 1936. In addition to the nation’s first lady and the first lady of aviation, on board is Lorena Hickok (Carol Woods), noted journalist and confidante to the Mrs. Roosevelt. The longstanding rumors of a romantic relationship between Eleanor and the woman she affectionately calls “Hick” are given credence in this tender and comic episode.

Both Eleanor (Carolann Page) and Amelia (Maureen Moore) are relegated to background status as the fiercely independent but hopelessly entranced Hick sings her story. Much more than in LaChiusa’s other portraits, “Eleanor Sleeps Here” offers a fresh, perhaps even revisionist, illustration of its characters. It was Hick, the author alleges, who created the public persona of the free-thinking, progressive Eleanor, much the way Earhart’s husband fueled Amelia’s dubious legend.

The intelligence, poignance and outright humor that runs throughout the vignettes reaches its full potency in the Roosevelt portrait. Its final moments are quite beautiful.

Happily, LaChiusa is as impressive a composer as he is a lyricist, penning catchy pop melodies that make these operettas remarkably accessible. He is abetted by a top-notch cast that sings as well as it acts.

Derek McLane’s whimsical sets, particularly the Lockheed Electra, provide the appropriate canvas for these portraits. Tom Broecker’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting are no less pleasing.

First Lady Suite

Production

NEW YORK A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a musical in two acts by Michael John LaChiusa. Directed by Kirsten Sanderson.

Crew

Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Tom Broecker; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; musical director, Alan Johnson; choreography, Janet Bogardus; casting, Jordan Thaler; production stage manager, Liz Small. NYSF producer, George C. Wolfe; managing director, Jason Steven Cohen. Opened Dec. 15, 1993, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Susan Stein Shiva Theater. Reviewed Dec. 14; 99 seats; $ 25 top.

With

Eleanor Roosevelt ... Carolann Page
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