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First Lady Suite
by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook
R-S Theatrics
September 5th, 2014

Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I was looking forward to seeing this production of First Lady Suite from R-S Theatrics. Their production of Parade last year is still one of my favorite musical productions that I’ve seen in St. Louis. Presented again at the grand Ivory Theatre, this production held a lot of promise for me, but I was ultimately disappointed, although that disappointment is more the result of the material than the production itself. R-S Theatrics has assembled a great cast, and the production values are good, but alas, First Lady Suite is not the exquisitely written, important piece of theatre that is Parade.  It gives me a lot of mixed feelings, since I think it’s an interesting idea, and R-S Theatrics has shown some daring in introducing this little-known show to the St. Louis audience.  Still, I wish this excellent cast would have been given better material to perform.

I have to say that I’m something of a Presidential trivia buff. I memorized the names of all the presidents in order when I was about 10 years old, and later I memorized their wives’ names as well. Presidential trivia books and biographies were “fun reading” for me growing up, so anything about presidents and their families piques my interest, at least at first.  The problem with LaChiusa’s work, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose for it. Is he celebrating the First Ladies, or is he ridiculing them?  Is he saying this is an important historical role, or a trivial one that people make too much of?  Taking some of the more remembered First Ladies in recent history–Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt–and presenting them in such unexpected ways sounds like a good idea, but what LaChiusa has produced just seems muddled, confusing, and occasionally needlessly disrespectful. This is historical absurdity with no obvious point, with a score that is largely tuneless and unmemorable.  There are some interesting ideas here in terms of focusing on the supporting players behind the First Ladies, but the script leaves a lot to be desired and much to wonder about.

There are four stories here, with differing degrees of fantasy and absurdity.  “Over Texas” focuses on the Kennedy staff–the First Lady’s insecure secretary Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly), and the President’s somewhat infatuated secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love)–as they make the fateful journey to Dallas in November, 1963. “Where’s Mamie?” takes Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt) on a fantastical odyssey from her White House bedroom to Little Rock, Arkansas and Algiers, with opera singer Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins) along for the ride. “Olio” features a short singing recital by First Daughter Margaret Truman (Christina Rios), presided over by a particularly boorish version of her mother, Bess (Nathan Robert Hinds). The last and longest segment is “Eleanor Sleeps Here”, in which a bizarrely vapid and capricious Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) is taken on an impromptu flight over Washington, DC by famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby), sparking the jealous ramblings of Eleanor’s close friend and confidant, former news reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Rachel Hanks).  Many historians believe the relationship between Hick and Eleanor was romantic, and that’s LaChiusa’s take, except the way this is written, it seems like the two have little in common and can barely stand each other. The oddest thing about these selections is that most of the First Ladies don’t come across very well–Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) is aloof and demanding, Lady Bird Johnson (Belinda Quimby) is a clueless airhead, Bess Truman  (Nathan Robert Hinds),  is portrayed as crass, boorish and insensitive; and Eleanor Roosevelt seems flighty and not particularly bright. The only First Lady who leaves a generally positive impression is Mamie Eisenhower, in a departure from the stingy and shrewish way she’s been portrayed. elsewhere. Here, she’s spunky and girlish, determined to change history and break out of the “rules” her husband (also Hinds) has set for her.  That segment is easily the most entertaining of the evening because of Van Pelt’s dynamic performance, although it’s not perfect either, since it oddly trivializes the desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Despite the difficult script and unmemorable score, however, the cast is very strong, and the production values are impressive. Especially notable technically are Amy Harrison’s richly detailed costumes.  The performers do their best with this material, as well. In addition to the production’s stand-out, Van Pelt, there are also strong performances from Donnelly as the self-doubting Gallagher,  Hinds as Dwight Eisenhower, Hanks as Hick, Quimby as Amelia Earhart, Rios as Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Truman, Perkins as Marian Anderson, and Love as Evelyn Lincoln and (making the most of an underwritten role) Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show opens with a promising ensemble number in which various First Ladies sing about the difficulty of the job, and it closes with a similar number, and these segments are probably the best parts of the show.

It’s a frustrating experience as a reviewer and a theatre fan to see such a well-produced production of a show that I don’t particularly enjoy.  As weak and confusing as the script is, though, this cast and crew have made the most of it, making it worth seeing just for the sake of the strong performances. R-S Theatrics continues to take risks in their productions, and that’s a good thing even when the risks don’t always pay off.

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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