R-S Theatrics' 'First Lady Suite' is a Bizarre Flight of Fancy

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

R-S Theatrics is known for producing shows that are out of the mainstream, and you don’t get much farther from mainstream than “First Lady Suite,” Michael John LaChiusa’s quirky chamber musical that takes a surrealistic look at four First Ladies: Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. The cast does an admirable job singing the dissonant score and performing the bizarre vignettes, but ultimately the play is defeated by LaChiusa’s puzzling and frustrating libretto. The only song one is likely to be humming after this show is, “What’s It All About, Alfie.”

Rachel Hanks, Kay Love, and Belinda Quimby. Photo: Michael Young

Rachel Hanks, Kay Love, and Belinda Quimby.
Photo: Michael Young

To be fair, many praised the play and its score when it first premiered off Broadway in 1993, a time when composers were beginning to experiment with alternative kinds of musical theater with songs that were psychological ramblings of the mind, rather than based on tangible things like ladies who lunch or surreys with fringe on top. While critics may have liked it, audiences mostly didn’t, and it closed after 32 performances. A 2004 revival ran for only 11 days, but garnered two Drama Desk Award nominations. The “Alfie” crack above notwithstanding, the musical is about something, namely, the women’s desire to break away from the constraints of being First Lady.

Elizabeth Van Pelt and Jeanitta Perkins in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics.  Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt and Jeanitta in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics.
Photo: Michael Young

Indeed, airplanes figure heavily in the show, representing the women’s desire to “fly away.” Jacqueline Kennedy is on her way to that fateful day in Dallas aboard Air Force One, Mamie Eisenhower travels back in time, and Eleanor Roosevelt circles above the capital in Washington in Amelia Earhart’s plane, while her adviser/companion Lorena Hickok steps out onto the wing to puff on a cigar. The most humorous vignette, with Bess Truman making rude comments and noises as her daughter sings, “Won’t You Lay Me to Rest in Old Missou-rah,” seems to be just stuck in the script, probably to lighten the somber mood.

Christina Rios and Nathan Robert in R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.”  Photo: Michael Young

Nathan Robert and Christina Rios in R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.”
Photo: Michael Young

The highlight is the talented cast, featuring 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).

The technical aspects of the show are fine with scenic design by Kyra Bishop, Nathan Schroeder on lights, costumes design by Amy Harrison and sound design by Mark Kelley. Nick Moramarco and Leah Luciano play the complicated score on dual pianos.

To be sure, “First Lady Suite” won’t appeal to everybody, but for those who like a unique theatrical experience and have a penchant for the avant-garde, this may indeed be your flight of fancy. It’s not everybody’s.

“First Lady Suite” continues through Sept. 14. For more information, visit the R-S Theatrics website.

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