Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite

First Lady Suite
The first UK professional production of the musical with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa

Michelle Obama – Annabelle Williams

Over Texas:
Mary Gallagher – Abi Finley
Evelyn Lincoln – Virgine Gilchrist
Jacqueline Kennedy – Poppy Tierney
Lady Bird Johnson – Robine Landi
Presidential Aide – Alex McNamara

Where’s Mamie?:
Mamie Eisenhower – Claire Machin
Marian Anderson – Annabelle Williams
Dwight D Eisenhower – Alex McNamara
Kay Summersby – Robine Landi

Bess Truman – Alex McNamara
Margaret Truman – Robine Landi
Eleanor Sleeps Here:
Eleanor Roosevelt – Virgine Gilchrist
Lorena Hickox – Poppy Tierney
Amelia Earhart – Robine Landi

Candida Caldicot – Piano 1 & Musical Director
Fergal O’Mahony – Piano 2

Rania Jumaily – Director
Luke Sheppard – Movement Director
Libby Lee – Set & Costume Designer
Robert Watts – Lighting Designer
Mike Belton – Sound Designer
Sarah Lasky – Projection Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 4 October, 2009
Venue: Union Theatre, Union Street, Southwark, London SE1

Michael John LaChiusa (born 1962) is an American composer, lyricist and librettist whose contemporary influences have been Philip Glass, John Adams and John Corigliano, as well as Gershwin, Rodgers and Sondheim. His Broadway productions include “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” for which he wrote some additional material, “Marie Christine”, inspired by Medea, and “The Wild Party”, based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March, with Toni Collette, Eartha Kitt and Mandy Patinkin. None of these shows was a great success. Less challenging and more approachable, his “Little Fish”, a “parable of sorts” for New York after the ‘9/11’ attacks, also flopped. This led LaChiusa to write a piece about current musical-theatre being “faux musicals”, mere mechanical shows that are not really about anything much. Since then, his “I See What I Wanna See” had a successful off-Broadway run, last year he was working on a new version of “Carmen” and this year his musical of Edna Ferber’s book “Giant” opened in Arlington. Virginia.

The Union Theatre is presenting the first UK professional production of LaChiusa’s chamber musical “First Lady Suite”. It was his first musical-theatre piece to be staged by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1993. He revised it for a New York revival in 2004 and this is the version now playing in London. The subjects of the piece are four of the US Presidents’ wives, namely Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, plus a guest appearance by Michelle Obama in a prologue.

This is not the first time the President and their wives have appeared in musical shows. In 1976 Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s short-lived (twenty performances) staging of “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” (the official address of The White House) saw Ken Howard as all the Presidents and Patricia Routledge as all the First Ladies in a musical depicting life at the White House during the period from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt. Despite being a flop it has at least one great song, ‘Take Care of This House’, which has taken on a life of its own. Fourteen years earlier Irving Berlin, in his final theatre show, depicted an imaginary President, one Stephen Decatur Henderson, and his wife, played by Robert Ryan and Nanette Fabray, in “Mr President”. Although fictional the leading characters bore some resemblance to the youthfulness of the Kennedys crossed with the homespun niceness of the Trumans. The show ran for just 265 performances.

Being the First Lady must be the worst job in the world. The programme quotes them all. Eleanor Roosevelt said she “never wanted to be the President’s wife and I don’t want it now”. Bess Truman: “We are not any one of us happy to be where we are”; Mamie Eisenhower: “Being mistress of The White House is a terrific responsibility”; Jacqueline Kennedy: “the major role of the First lady is to take care of the President”; while Michelle Obama says “My number one job as First lady is to be First Mum.”

The show opens and closes with the ladies in flight, which is probably what most of them would rather be doing than being imprisoned in The White House. In ‘Over Texas’, Jacqueline Kennedy is about to land at Dallas in November 1963. Her personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, is keeping busy, making sure the arrangements for the motorcade are going well. In ‘Where’s Mamie?’, Mrs Roosevelt has an encounter with opera singer Marian Anderson, no doubt while her husband is preoccupied with his chauffeur Kay Summersby. ‘Olio’ is a short, incisive interlude in which Bess Truman is playing the stage mother and encouraging Margaret, her not very good singer of a daughter, to perform at a Christian women’s luncheon. Incidentally, Irving Berlin made Margaret’s touring career a running joke in “Call Me Madam”, in which his heroine, US Ambassador Sally Adams, is constantly on the phone to Harry Truman. In the original production a President Truman lookalike always took a curtain call, although he never appeared in the show. Finally, ‘Eleanor Sleeps Here’ takes place on aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart’s aeroplane with Mrs Roosevelt and her more than unusually devoted confidante, the journalist Lorena Hickok, with whom the First Lady may or may not have had a close(t) relationship.

Of the four First Ladies as depicted here only Mamie Eisenhower seems to have any fun. She accepts her role unequivocally and thanks God for her Army wife training. Claire Machin imbues Mamie with great personality, as a woman who will gladly put up with anything, good or bad, that comes her way. Jacqueline Kennedy is the cool clotheshorse, a calm and collected figure in Poppy Tierney’s performance. Bess Truman is a nervous worrier, a fact highlighted by Alex McNamara (yes, the role is written for a male actor) as (s)he hoots and storms about the place in a hilarious impersonation. Eleanor Roosevelt is a mass of contradictions and a figure about whom nobody really knows the truth. Her thirty-year correspondence with Lorena Hickok was perhaps her way of fleeing from the terrors of The White House as she sought her own salvation. Virgine Gilchrist captures her vacillating nature while Poppy Tierney makes Lorena even more interesting in her look-alike, upswept ‘Dame Edna’ spectacles on a chain.

LaChiusa’s music is in a mixture of styles, ranging from sprechgesang (the show is mostly through sung) to jazzy, ragtime melodies. The arrangements for two pianos work very well and the music is almost instantly appealing and, as the piece progresses, Raina Jumaily’s simple but effective production really cuts quite deep as it explores a hitherto uncharted area of research. If, finally, all the women remain enigmatic, that is surely the cause of the job they are doing as anybody who has to live in the shadow of another major figure must surely realise. As an exploration of an odd piece of Americana, the show is one not to miss.

  • First Lady Suite continues at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 17 October 2009: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.Tickets: 020 7261 9876
  • First Lady Suite

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