Music, Lyrics, and Book by Michael John LaChiusa.
Directed by Nicholas Reinhart.
Musical Direction by Nick Graffagna.
Produced by Circle Theatre.
At The Heartland Studio, Chicago.
First Ladies: A Peripheral Revue.
In the spirit of the election season, Circle Theatre opened this weekend Michael John LaChiusa’s chamber musical First Lady Suite. A kind of musical vignette of / homage to the women behind the leaders of the free world (or, the women behind the women behind the men, as the case may be), First Lady Suite features some strong vocal and comedic performances with live (electric) piano accompaniment (by Nick Graffagna and John Cockerill); overall, however, it lacks compelling enough substance to have one care or empathize with the female protagonists and their powerlessness to “fly.”
In the three stories that are presented to us in succession, the “wish for flight” is a common theme, as all three protagonists are in some way caught in the tailwind of a bigger bird, be it their husband or their First Lady.
The first story takes place over Texas, on board Air Force One, just hours before President John F. Kennedy will be assassinated. Mary Gallagher (Tiffany Tatreau), the personal secretary to the First Lady, is both thrilled to be on board and “pooped” from assisting her mistress; more than that, she feels unappreciated in her role, as she never gets any credit, no one knows who she is or what she does, and — to add insult to injury — she is not allowed to ride in the motorcade. (My sentiment: boo-hoo.) She conveys all this (in song) to JFK’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln (Emily Grayson). However — notwithstanding Mary’s dream in which she witnesses a neurotic First Lady Kennedy (Courtney Jones) prophetically describe JFK’s assassination — Evelyn ultimately assuages Mary’s feelings of under appreciation with a song that instills in her a sober appreciation for her role.
The second story takes place in Ike (Pavi Proczko) and Mamie (Hannah Dawe) Eisenhower’s bedroom in the White House in 1957. It is Mamie’s birthday, but Ike is busy down in Little Rock tending to the racial situation taking place there over integration. Mamie knocks herself out with one too many martinis and off she goes to fantasy land, where she travels through the capital to the roaring birthday cheers of citizens, and then boards a train to Little Rock to find out just what exactly Ike is up to. There, she runs into Marian Anderson (Nicole Michelle Haskins), a famous black opera singer, and, moved by Marian’s concern over the socio-political situation there, takes her to see Ike herself — which means travelling back in time to see General Ike in 1944. There, they witness Ike’s infidelity and finally confront him on it, as well as warn him about the racial strife that will someday threaten the country when he is president.
The third story takes place in the interior of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra on a night sometime in the year 1936. Amelia (Courtney Jones) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Emily Grayson) are up front at the controls, and, behind them, Lorena Hickok (Neala Barron), the once-famous journalist and confidant to Eleanor, sits alone, passing candies at Eleanor’s command. Much like the first story (and similar to the second), Lorena is our underappreciated protagonist, but this time it is her love for her First Lady that keeps her from achieving her success: were it not for that, she would have no qualms of conscience and could report objectively on what she sees. Instead, she finds herself diminished, having neither Eleanor’s love nor her own success. Fortunately, Amelia is a wise and understanding person, and she reassures Lorena that, whatever success she might have had alone, through the cooperating agency of Eleanor truly great and national change can occur. Lorena is heartened by this. Coda: chorus number — The End.
According to Circle Theatre’s description, First Lady Suite offers us “a close look into [the First Ladies’] lifestyles, perspectives and relationships.” I would amend this description to read that it is more like a “glimpse into,” as the level of social and psychological depth is as penetrating as a People magazine article. And I certainly wouldn’t call this chamber musical “poignant” with its largely frivolous circumstances and use of camp humor, or the lives of these women “fascinating” with its banal conflicts, two other flower words the description employs.
Rather, with the exception of the adventurous and pioneering Eleanor Roosevelt, all of the women portrayed come across as whiny victims (albeit with nice voices) whose problems range from the mediocre (Mary Gallagher) to the unremarkable (Mamie, Lorena) — all of which tread very close to the melodramatic in their musical expression of said problems.
Moreover — how is this about the First Ladies, exactly? Two of our protagonists are not First Ladies — why do I care about them? What exactly are their lifestyles? Overindulged in wealth, underappreciated in attention? Their perspectives? Sour? Their relationships? Uh . . . ordinarily problematic?
Overall, I found none of the stories compelling dramatically: I don’t understand what LaChiusa is trying to say here by dramatizing these particular stories. Perhaps something about how women have made a difference even in their historically secondary roles, but LaChiusa’s script doesn’t make an entertaining or intellectually stimulating enough case for me to care. Nevertheless, the show’s saving grace is its music and its style: some nice melodies and fine singing (particularly in chorus), and elegant costume and lighting design, by Alexa Weinzierl and Maya Michele Fein, respectively. If that’s enough to get your vote, cast your ballot there.
Reviewed on 5 November 2016.
Playing at The Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $28. For tickets and information, visit CircleTheatreChicago.org. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. — with additional showings Tuesdays on November 8th, 15th, and 22nd at 8:00 p.m. — through November 27th. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.