For all of its first act and snippets of its second, Ford’s Theatre’s Eleanor feels like a snappy throwback to the era when Broadway musicals knew both what they were about and how to entertain.

The evening starts with one of those assertive chorus numbers that introduce period, mood, and major characters. Then it segues to a scene that gets the love story under way and establishes that there’s a choreographer on the premises. By Scene 3, the title character is surrounded by kids (not hers) so both the audience and her hubby-to-be can see what a great mom she’d make. By Scene 4, they’re confronting his dragon lady of a mother and working out how to get around her objections.

All very efficient and—you’d think—pat. But surprisingly, the script and performances keep making what ought to be hoary structural clichés work like charms. Charm being one of Eleanor’s biggest assets, that’s a good thing. In a world of aggressively overproduced megamusicals, this show seems perfectly content to be pleasantly involving—the best musical of, say, 1963—with score and characters, not stage hydraulics, doing most of its heavy lifting.

And for roughly an hour and a half of its two-and-a-half-hour duration, the lifting they do is genuinely bracing. Eleanor and her swain are played by buoyant musical comedy leads who have fine voices and personality to spare. The supporting cast is filled with actor-singers who can sketch in character traits with a tilt of the head, chatter brightly through a patter song, and put plenty of verve into a hitch-step. Yes, the show has a troubled second act, but it’s professional, sharply staged, and buoyant.

You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned what most people will assume is the central fact of this musical: that the Eleanor of the title is Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ve avoided the issue because it leads down a blind alley. The instant you’re forced to grapple with the notion that Anne Kanengeiser and Anthony Cummings are playing the former first couple, all sorts of expectations get between you and the show they’re starring in. You start expecting impersonations rather than characters, position papers rather than dialogue. That’s not what’s up on stage, but it can’t help being what you anticipate, and nothing could be more damaging to the evening.

Political biography was, for instance, all that the Post’s reviewer could see, and it forced him to lead with the sentence, “Beware the Message Musical, it almost always collapses under its good intentions.” It’s easy to guess what he means, even if he had to create a nonexistent paradigm to make his point. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no such thing as a Message Musical. What would qualify? Cabaret? The Threepenny Opera? Maybe he was thinking of Paul Simon’s The Capeman or the short-lived Parade, each of which dealt with prisoners on death row, but surely there’s a better term for those. Still, lots of musicals deal with historical characters—Evita and 1776 spring to mind—and they do often have to labor harder at being entertaining than pure fictions do.

The sort of show Eleanor more closely resembles is the 1959 Pulitzer-winner, Fiorello!, which chronicled the political rise of New York’s Depression-era mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Boasting a tuneful score by the composer-lyricist team that was about to start work on Fiddler on the Roof (another of those sure-to-collapse message shows, no doubt), Fiorello! mixed political shenanigans with what one critic called “a curious streak of honest journalism” and a love story that no one took terribly seriously. It was a smash for a couple of seasons, but its appeal was always greater for New Yorkers who remembered their feisty mayor than for anyone else, and it’s rarely revived these days.

Eleanor’s creators—librettist Jonathan Bolt, composer Thomas Tierney, and lyricist John Forster—have adopted similar storytelling rhythms to those of Fiorello! and have strayed from its model primarily in crafting their tale in a way that emphasizes “honest journalism” over political shenanigans and the love story. The first half of the evening, when Eleanor and Franklin are courting cute, is easily the most engaging part of the story. It’s also the part about which audience members can be expected to know the least. Once Franklin is running for statewide office, having affairs, and contracting the polio that nearly sidelines his political career, the plot becomes at once more familiar and less dramatically comprehensible.

Suddenly the love story drops away, and the audience is left, not with a story of marital teamwork gone awry or of marital dissolution, but with scene after scene of musical speechifying as Eleanor divides her time between telling her family that she’s unhappy and telling the world that her husband will be back on the stump as soon as he recuperates.

In his program notes, Bolt describes this schism as psychological growth (“the enormous irony that in the act of living a life for someone else…she found her own”), but because Franklin has always been pictured as a political opportunist and Eleanor as the one with the social conscience, that’s not how it plays. Rather, she seems to be propping up the career of a rat who betrays her by having affairs and who would be nothing without her. If the anthems Tierney hands Eleanor for the evening’s conclusion soared a bit less predictably, or Forster’s lyrics cut against the grain of self-sacrifice that runs through the whole second act, the creators might be able to finesse the plot imposed on them by history. As things now stand, they can’t.

What keeps the audience tuned in for the first act—besides the cleverness of Bolt’s script, which allows the characters plenty of knowing winks and sarcasm—are the ingratiating performances, plus the skill with which Lisa Portes’ staging leaps from bedroom to dance floor to political rally. The show gives the effect of moving along at a good clip, even when its plot is stalled.

Kanengeiser, as anyone who saw her Fosca in Signature Theatre’s Passion can attest, brings a powerful stage presence and a stunning contralto to any musical role. In Eleanor’s first half, she also gets to show off a sense of humor that’s as pointed as it is gratifying. And Cummings is a good match for her, getting Franklin’s patrician roots right without making the character seem a prig. While he (and the authors) work hard to make the character’s infidelity understandable, Cummings is at his best when he’s cutting up, playing the quipster in the Roosevelt household or goofing around on the campaign trail.

As the evening goes on, costumer Michael Alan Stein adds accouterments (glasses, a cigarette holder) and adjusts Franklin’s hairstyle and wardrobe in ways that make him look more and more like the four-term president. And other design elements are similarly restrained, with Troy Hourie’s setting basically a skeletal framework within which Elaine J. McCarthy can mount a playful, ever-shifting, sepia-toned slide show. If the show’s second act were as light on its feet as the work of its designers, Ford’s would have a big fat hit on its hands.

Even as things stand, there are reasons not to leave Eleanor entirely to the tourist trade. It’s hardly a great show, but it’s a sharp production, and the performances—starting with the leads and including such supporting players as Steve Routman (as Franklin’s caustically pragmatic political mentor), Tamra Hayden (as party girl Alice Roosevelt), and Rita Gardner (as Franklin’s strong-willed mother)—are of a brightness not often seen in today’s machine-made musicals.CP

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