Multi-Tony-nominated writer-composer John LaChiusa (“The Wild Party,” “Marie Christine”) has wrought a melodious but substance-deprived sojourn into the private lives of some of the most public women in the world — the wives of U.S. presidents. The near-operatic series of quirky vignettes spotlight the personas of Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the behind-the-scenes damsels who served them. Also in attendance are such historic notables as Marian Anderson, Margaret Truman and Amelia Earhart. What’s missing is any semblance of insight or revelation. A talented ensemble, under the capable guidance of Daniel Henning, instills as much pizzazz as possible into the proceedings but ultimately is defeated by LaChiusa’s convoluted, unfulfilling libretto.
The opening tableau features the White House entourage on exhibit as a black first lady (Paula Newsome) of the future ponders her fate in the White House. The ensemble’s emotional rendering of the introductory “Do You Know What I Wished For” gives evidence of LaChiusa’s musical inventiveness and the strong vocal talent in this ensemble.
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Set in an Air Force One passenger cabin, “Over Texas” follows JFK’s flight to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The action focuses not on Jack or Jackie but on their personal secretaries, quietly efficient Evelyn Lincoln (Evelyn Halus) and hyperactive Mary Gallagher (Heather Lee). We learn much about their idiosyncrasies but little about Jackie (Bronwen Booth), who offers a foreboding anticipation of what the future holds in the scene-ending “Riding in an Open Car.”
“Where’s Mamie?” is a comically surrealistic trip within the mind of supposed tippler Mamie Eisenhower (Eydie Alyson), who once again finds herself alone as hubby Ike (Gregory Jbara) is off dealing with the 1957 Little Rock integration crisis. As she contemplates her fate as the always dutiful military wife (“My Husband Was an Army Man”), Mamie arbitrarily fantasizes escorting diva Marian Anderson, effectively portrayed by Newsome to Little Rock to assist in the civil rights struggle. She then whisks back to 1943 to catch her philandering hubby making whoopee with his military chauffeur, Kay Sommersby (Irene Warner). Alyson is memorable as Mamie, but the scene attempts to cover too much subject matter without adequately developing any of it.
Highlight of the production is the uproarious luncheon for Christian Democrat mothers and daughters in 1950 where a thoroughly bored and dispassionate Bess Truman (Jbara) somberly introduces her always-perky singer daughter Margaret (Warner). While Margaret wails away on the spiritual-like “Won’t You Lay Me to Rest in Old Missouri,” Jbara steals the show as Bess unsuccessfully attempts to ignore her daughter’s rather suspect vocal prowess.
The low point in the evening has to be a ponderously lengthy night out with Eleanor Roosevelt (Halus) indulging in a plane ride with Amelia Earhart (Kate Shindle). Halus and Shindle (1998’s Miss America) have little to do, as the focus is on journalist-turned-Eleanor companion Lorena Hickock (Mary-Pat Green). As Amelia and Eleanor wax poetic about flying at night, an exceedingly annoyed Hickock (Hick for short) ruminates on the fates that took her from being an ace journalist to the first lady’s closeted lover. At this point LaChiusa runs out of musical ideas as Green struggles to instill some life into the composer’s dronelike dirges.
Production accoutrements are certainly first-rate. Jennifer Joos has worked wonders with 2nd Stage’s limited performing area, and the costuming of Dana Peterson is picture-perfect. The adroit piano duo of musical director Stephen Bates and Bradley Vieth keep the action moving along.