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A CurtainUp Review
First Lady Suite
By Elyse Sommer
Jack Cummings III, Transport's artistic director, has staged the four parts with remarkably effective simplicity that puts the focus exactly where it belongs: on the music and the superb cast of nine ladies and one man. Suite is a reunion for Cummings and LaChiusa, as the composer contributed original music to last season's Requiem for William, a collage of seven short plays by William Inge. In First Lady Suite, the composer is also the playwright, and he satisfies on all counts.
Though I enjoyed the original First Lady Suite, this one is bigger and better, and playing as it does during an election year, it certainly couldn't be timelier. In addition to the stellar cast, the revival is enhanced by the prologue and epilogue added during the long interval between productions. written to be sung individually as well as by the ensemble, it brings the cast together to form vivid tableaus as it frames the overall theme — the yearning to fly away from the constraints that come with the traditional First Lady's privileged life ("Do you know what I wished for?/ I wished for flight/flight. . .").
The opening piece foreshadows John F. Kennedy's assassination. It takes place on November 22, 1963, on board Air Force One, en route to Dallas. The First Lady under scrutiny is Jaqueline Kennedy (Robyn Hussa). Mrs. Kennedy, in that most famous of all First Lady outfits — pink suit and matching pillbox hat — makes periodic appearances, as does Lady Bird Johnson (Ruth Gottschal), but the leads here are the Kennedy administration's personal secretaries, Mary Gallagher (Donna Lynne Champlin) and Evelyn Lincoln (Diane Sutherland). Champlin winningly portrays the frustrations of the second banana position of the First Lady's secretary as compared to that of the President's. In a beautifully sung dream scene we also see the petty demands and constant availability that such jobs entail.
Where's Mamie? begins in the Eisenhower's White House bedroom in 1957 but again becomes airborne when Mamie (Cheryl Stern), still wearing her pink satin robe and matching hair ribbon, takes off to take a first hand look at what the fuss about school integration in Little Rock is about. Her madcap flight continues with Marian Anderson (Sherry D. Boone who was the alternate star in LaChiusa's Marie Christine) at her side and a flight of fancy detour to put down painful memories of Ike's (Hindman again) dalliance with his chauffeur Kay Summersby (Gottschal again). Stern is a delightfully ditzy but cannily realistic Mamie who memorably sings about hurtful "rumors and lies" and resolutely insists "I wouldn't change a single thing/everything, I wanted, I got." But when she sings " I have rules to follow" her new friend Marian counters with "old rules are old rules/ new rules are better." Boone, like the famous opera singer she portrays, has a thrilling contralto, which soars in her passionate ode to equality.
Olio, a post intermission curtain raiser is the only piece not involving a flight. However, because it's so short, it fits in and it does give James Hindman a hilarious chance to be one of the ladies — that lady being Bess Truman as something of a mother from Hell at daughter Margaret's 1950 recital for Christian Democratic mothers and daughters. From this it's on to the powerful concluding vignette about Eleanor Roosevelt (Mary Beth Peil) and two women who figured importantly in her life. This is the one that imprinted itself most firmly on my memory in 1993 and I think this version will resonate with me even longer.
The plane on which Eleanor Sleeps Here takes place is a Lockheed Electra piloted by its owner, Amelia Earhart (Julia Murney), with Mrs. Roosevelt in the co-pilot's seat and her lover, the journalist Lorena "Hick" Hitchcock (Mary Testa) in the rear. All three performances are first rate. LaChiusa's lyrics for Murney's accolade to Mrs. Roosevelt perfectly sum up what that great First Lady was all about -- a woman who "never looks into a mirror" but one who "crosses oceans no one's ever crossed before/ who when you give your best to her./She turns it into more. " Ultimately, it's Testa, who like Sherry Boone previously worked with LaChiusa in Marie Christine, has the powerhouse role here and, like Eleanor Roosevelt, "she turns it into more."
As he did with Requiem for William, Mr. Cummings has pulled the show together into a seamlessly integrated whole. John Story's striking tilted platform replicates the presidential seal and serves each segment equally well and with only an occasional chair as a prop. Kathryn Rohe's costumes fit each character and occasion. She astutely used one palette for the ensemble opening and closing — all black for the prologue, and all white for the latter. The look of the show is also enriched by R. Lee Kennedy lighting .
The excellent three piece orchestra, unobtrusively positioned to the side of the first few rows of seats, does honor to the rich score without ever forcing the singers strain to be heard, or the audience miss the lyrics. I'd be willing to bet anyone that given this lineup of talent and the $15 ticket price makes First Lady Suite the undisputed musical bargain on any New York stage. Now, if only Mr. Cummings would consider a revival of Mr. LaChiusa's other delectable chamber opera, Hello Again. Until and unless a CD is made of the Transport Group production, you can listen to the original score on a CD made last year and available in our book store
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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