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For a primer on the current state of musical theater, D.C. playgoers could hie themselves to the KenCen’s flashily reconstituted How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; the Warner’s sloppy Jelly’s Last Jam; Washington Opera’s intriguingly melodic Tiefland; MetroStage’s earnest Noel and Gertie; and the National’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Or they could save a bundle by catching Signature Theater’s production of Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite, which manages to incorporate elements of all the others into a single evening that’s every bit as schizophrenic, funny, maddening, and occasionally stirring as one might expect such a combination to be.
Suite is actually four musicals ranging from five to 40 minutes and from vaudeville skit to quasi-operatic Sondheimspiel. Each of the four involves the wife of a U.S. president, though sometimes only peripherally. Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman are central to their stories, while in the airborne fantasies that begin and end the evening, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt exist primarily as icons to be argued over by other characters. That’s because LaChiusa intends his title to include first ladies from all walks of life, among them aviatrix Amelia Earhart and such trendsetters as White House journalist Lorena Hickok and opera singer Marian Anderson. As befits a ladies-first evening, presidents remain mostly in the wings (Ike shows up briefly as a general) and aren’t much missed.
Working backward chronologically, Signature’s production begins with Over Texas, the most conventional of the four pieces in musical-comedy terms, but an odd skit nonetheless. It begins as a sung conversation between JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Suzanne Briar) and Jackie’s secretary Mary Gallagher (Mary Payne Lawson), who are winging their way southward from D.C. on a campaign swing aboard Air Force One. Evelyn’s a seasoned politico, Mary’s a goof, and their first duet has some of the knowing playfulness of the “He’s Thinking, She’s Thinking” number in How to Succeed.
But when Mary takes what she refers to as a “tom-kitten nap” and Jackie, played with stately elegance by Cece Michaels, materializes from a cloud, the music turns dark er. Attired as she was on the day of her husband’s assassination, the first lady is distracted enough to wonder where to find the hat and gloves she’s clutching in her hands. Mary’s comic annoyance and the hallucinatory appearance of a polyester-clad, Stepford-wifeish Ladybird notwithstanding, the sequence is appropriately nightmarish. When Mary awakens, another nightmare will begin of course, a fact captured in a haunting final image that, perhaps inevitably, lends the piece more gravity than LaChiusa’s music does.
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The second sketch, Where’s Mamie?, follows a similar arc, beginning brightly before becoming more subdued. When we meet Ike’s wife (played ditzily by Donna Lillard Migliaccio), she’s a symphony in pink from the furry tufts on her high-heeled slippers to the pointed peaks of the scarf tied around her head. Mamie’s pink pearls bounce petulantly as she announces from her pillowed pink bed-top perch that her hubby has left her alone in the White House…again. That there is some crisis in Little Rock does not seem to her a good reason why she should have to experience “the worst birthday I’ve ever had.” And as she rattles off the many humiliations of her life as a dutiful if alcoholic spouse to a public figure, it becomes clear why, as the press tended to put it, “Mrs. Eisenhower has episodes.”
One such episode then occurs, with Mamie imagining flying off to Little Rock herself, encountering Anderson (Annette Poulard), and time-traveling with her to Algiers in 1944 to spy on Ike (Joe Dodd), who’s midliaison with his Army chauffeur, Kay Summersby. Mamie’s considerably more interesting when she’s trashing bigotry and her husband’s posturing (“That’s just plain donkey balls”) than when she’s wallowing in self-pity (“I followed all the rules”), and since the piece gives her more opportunities to do the latter than the former, it’s ultimately self-deflating.
After intermission, there’s an amusing throwaway sketch called Olio in which Bess Truman (Dodd again, this time in drag) coughs and fidgets through one of her daughter’s legendarily ghastly singing recitals. And finally, the evening arrives at its chief reason for being: Eleanor Sleeps Here, a quasi-operatic, artfully wrought 40-minute flight aboard Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra with Eleanor Roosevelt (Brenda Wesner) and her best buddy, Lorena Hickok (Karlah Hamilton).
Hickok, a journalist who became confidante and adviser to Mrs. Roosevelt (and was known by her as Hick), initially seems the most self-aware of the three, but appearances prove deceiving. As Eleanor burbles appreciatively about Earhart’s accomplishments, Hick observes that the aviatrix’s fame has been carefully nurtured by a husband who turned her into a brand name and sent her out “hawking toothpaste and gum and functional clothes.” Hickok claims to have “invented” the Depression-era first lady in a similar way. “Before she met me,” sings Hamilton in a sharp, brassy voice, “she thought grappling with an issue meant trying to get through an issue of Harper’s Bazaar.” But Hick has been equally transformed by Eleanor, and Hamilton—a terrific actress who hails from Chicago and who shouldn’t be allowed to go back as long as musicals are being produced here—lets you hear the ache that underlies the sarcasm. She and Briar’s wise, affecting Earhart both sing of recognizing in Eleanor a specialness—even a greatness—that has little to do with actual accomplishment and everything to do with inspiring those around her. As the sequence adopts the form of a love story, the music takes on an ethereal quality that’s at once muscular and haunting.
The theatrical impact varies markedly from segment to segment, with the evening’s second half being much more rewarding than the first. Still, as staged by Eric D. Schaeffer, all four pieces possess the polish and snap that audiences have come to expect from Signature musicals. Designer Lou Stancari’s stage-wide map of Washington, D.C., fragmented so that panels, doors, and platforms erupt from it, revealing hints of an equally large American flag, offers a perfect backdrop. The skeletal way he suggests airline furniture and an airplane wing is also clever. Ayun Fedorca’s mood-enhancing lighting, Susan Anderson’s witty, period-defining costumes and hair design, Mark Darni and Jon Kalbfleisch’s expanded orchestrations and Kalbfleisch’s confident musical direction are also assets.
The production does have its awkward spots, and patrons should know going in that LaChiusa’s music isn’t the sort that’s calculated to set anyone humming. First Lady Suite belongs to a new generation of chamber musicals—mostly off-Broadway works that, like last season’s Wings, explore forms and subject matter that wouldn’t have occurred to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Like the eclectic shows of Stephen Sondheim, they’re musically and emotionally challenging in a way that will not be to everyone’s taste, but once you get the hang of them, they’re infinitely more interesting than the technomusicals cluttering up Broadway. That D.C. is blessed with a local troupe willing to tackle them on a regular basis—a troupe that has, in fact, made its reputation by tackling them—attests to the increasing maturity of the Washington audience.