Sunday, September 7, 2014

FIRST LADY SUITE • R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics has never been a company to shy away from unconventional material, and its current St. Louis premiere production is no exception. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa dismantles four iconic First Ladies of the United States, along with their friends and associates, in four imaginative, if not bizarre vignettes. LaChiusa, a self-professed "first lady-ologist", riffs off of nuggets of truth and rumor found in each of the first ladies featured (Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt), and adds a rhythmically tricky and melodically atypical score that the cast can sink their teeth into, in an off-the-wall chamber musical that's anything but standard musical theatre fare. Love.

After a prologue with past first ladies flanking the current one, "Over Texas" starts with Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly) aboard Air Force One, missing her cat and bemoaning the demands of being personal secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) to a politely listening Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love), the secretary to JFK. While exhausted and trapped in her service to Kennedy, Mary is giddy about having tea on the president's plane, and hopeful at the prospect of one day getting to ride in the motorcade.
Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher)
and Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Jacqueline interrupts, absentmindedly wondering where her famous hat and gloves are. After continuing the comedic vibe Donnelly sets up so well, the mood darkens as the image-obsessed Kennedy anticipates the endless blocks of smiling and waving she'll soon face in Dallas in that fateful motorcade with an uneasy dread. Donnelly handles the score well and mines the comedy in her performance, and Rios subtly exposes the depths of Kennedy's fears and frustrations. Belinda Quimby makes a few hilarious appearances as a disconnected Lady Bird Johnson along with Nathan Hinds as a political aide.

Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower)
and Jeanitta Perkins (Marian Anderson).
Photo credit: Gerry Love
In "Where's Mamie?", it's 1957, and Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt, the artist formerly known as Beth Wickenhauser) is annoyed because she's been left alone on her birthday. African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins), makes a surreal appearance in Mamie's imagination to warn her of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas and the approaching civil rights riots to come if the President doesn't step in. So, she and Mamie take a trip back in time to forewarn the unfaithful President-to-be (Nathan Hinds), currently in the army, about what's on the horizon. What?!? Yeah. I mentioned this musical is offbeat, right? Van Pelt, in her pink bow and slippers, lends her comedic talents as a flashy one moment, deadpan the next Mamie, and Perkins controls her challenging singing duties well, with support by Hinds, and Quimby as Ike's chauffeur.

Nathan Hinds (Bess Truman)
and Christina Rios (Margaret Truman).
Photo credit: Michael Young
"Olio", the shortest and most comedic piece that comes after intermission, puts Bess Truman's daughter Margaret (Rios) front and center during a vocal recital, trying to carry on as her mother (Hinds in heels) sits behind her, bringing on a series of hilarious scene stealing. Rios sings the part beautifully, while Hinds throws out under-the-breath insults like any horrific stage mother would.

"Eleanor Sleeps Here", the last and most fully sketched scenario, takes place on another plane, but it's the plane of Amelia Earhart (Quimby), having a night flight over Washington DC with Eleanor Roosevelt (Love) and her close friend, journalist Lorena Hickok (Rachel Hanks). Three lesbians, amiright? Anyhoo, this story is really about "Hick" and her devotion to Eleanor, and what she gave up to be in this first lady's inner circle. Stationed at the back of the plane, later venturing onto the wing, she becomes jealous of Roosevelt's growing friendship with Earhart. While Eleanor is personified with amplified comedy, beautifully sung by Love, Hanks, also with a lovely voice, goes from romantic to jealous to angry and then full circle again, with strong support by Quimby as Earhart.

Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Kay Love (Eleanor Roosevelt)
and Belinda Quimby (Amelia Earhart).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Director Shualee Cook strikes a good balance between absurd comedy and emotional twinges. Kyra Bishop's scenic design features the Presidential Seal adorning the floor of the stage with a screen for projections, and just a few pieces of furniture. Amy Harrison puts a suitable combination together for the costumes, Mark Kelley's sound design seems sparse but works well, and Nathan Schroeder's lighting design follows the action nicely with music director Nick Moramarco and Leah Luciano lending musical support on piano.

Now, are you going to walk out of the theatre with a headful of hummable tunes? No. This musical is not for everyone. But the ambitious material, though it drags in some spots along the way, hides a few surprising depths within its fanciful folds, for me proving to be a unique, freshly progressive musical theatre experience. It's playing at the Ivory Theatre until the 14th.


FIRST LADY SUITE

Book/lyrics/music by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook 
Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave.
through September 14 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher), Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln/Eleanor Roosevelt), Jeanitta Perkins (Current First Lady/Marian Anderson), Belinda Quimby (Ladybird Johnson/Chauffeur/Amelia Earhart), Christina Rios (Jaqueline Kennedy/Margaret Truman), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower) and Nathan Hinds (Presidential Aide/Bess Truman/Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower).

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Amy Harrison; sound design by Mark Kelley; stage manager, Nikki Lott.

Musicians:
Piano 1/music director, Nick Moramarco; piano 2, Leah Luciano.

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