After its mesmerizing former production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the young Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co. hits another home run with Michael John LaChiusa's thoroughly intriguing first major work, the chamber musical First Lady Suite (1993). Here is a distinctive, adult voice that demolishes the lie that the Broadway musical is dead. Composer/lyricist LaChiusa resurrects the moribund form and kicks it into high gear.
As of this date, LaChiusa, a self-taught musician who dropped out of journalism school to try his hand at songwriting, has yet to be draped with the mantle of Sondheim as the leader of the pack, but his consistently varied work since Suite has been praised and honored, if not uniformly cherished. His somber Marie Christine (1999), a voodoo retelling of the Greek myth Medea, was nominated for five Tony Awards; The Wild Party (2000), based on the roaring '20s epic poem by Joseph Moncure March, for seven. In Houston in 2006, we heard his rather undistinguished one-act Send (who are you? i love you), a contemporary take on Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice, which was far more distinguished as a showcase for Broadway superstar Audra McDonald, a frequent muse.
Although a young work, Suite is clever and funny, poignant and moving. The music throughout is immensely listenable, pegged accurately to the character singing so that each arietta is complete in itself. You can hear why this work set Broadway's heart aflutter that a new voice had been discovered. Like Sondheim, LaChiusa writes his own lyrics, so there's a tight bond between words and music. He's as accomplished a wordsmith as he is tunesmith.
Even in the woefully unfunny comedy number where first lady Bess's shy daughter Margaret gives a command performance, the song "Old Missoura" -- which she murders with semaphore acting while Bess snores loudly or chokes on a lemon drop -- is itself a lovely, old-fashioned song in the manner of master Stephen Foster. Nothing is wasted in LaChiusa's vocabulary; the whole musical world is at his command: Gershwin makes many refreshing jazzy appearances, there are appreciative nods to brassy Berlin, and whole bursts of Sondheim, if without his patented brittle. For all the pastiche, though, there's great invention in his sound -- ably performed on two electronic pianos (Margaret Winchell and Wiley DeWeese) and cello (Martha Cunyus) -- it's spiky, then languid, cerebral, then warm. Suite's music and lyrics don't wash over you like so much of recent Broadway musak, they grab you and make you listen. You may not know where the songs are going, but the journey is full of satisfying surprises.
Four First Ladies are at Suite's center: Jackie Kennedy (Gina-Marie Vincent), Mamie Eisenhower (Karen Ross), Bess Truman (Brad Zimmerman in drag), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Abby Seible). Lady Byrd makes a cameo, and, at times, the action is witnessed by a silent First Lady (Regina Morgan), who stands in for Michelle Obama. Introducing each scene, like introductory book subtitles, are potent voice-over excerpts from a press interview with Jackie where her sense of self is shockingly revealed. Except for the Mamie sequence, where she is front and center, the musical soars most when the famous women's peripheral associates, particularly Roosevelt's closeted lover Lorena Hickok (Julia Kaye Laskowski) come into the spotlight. The Truman segment is the weakest only because it turns Bess into a one-joke drag that doesn't illuminate; it's just shtick. Jackie is seen through her over-worked secretary (Betty Marie Muessig), who begins the musical's time tripping premise by having a premonition about Dallas, which sets up Jackie's poignant "The Smallest Thing," before she sets off in the fatal motorcade.
Mamie wakes up in her White House bedroom on her birthday, all naive and ready to follow orders, which she has done every day since she met her "handsome guy" who always has put his beloved military first. Ross overlays the comic Mamie with a hurting heart that belies her girlish peignoir and fluffy slippers. Her "Where's Mamie" is part Jerry Herman rouse with Kurt Weill ache. It's a stirringly complete portrait. When she time trips to Little Rock and meets opera icon Marian Anderson (Regina Morgan), who teaches her about the mighty segregation battle about to erupt, her life in Ike's shadow blazes into daylight. With bittersweet comedy, she and Anderson fly off to WW II Algiers to spy on Ike (Brad Zimmerman) to see if the rumors of an affair with his driver are true. The truth seems to set her free. And LaChiusa lets us believe that Mamie will be responsible for Ike's decision to send in the federal troops to defend Central High.
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But the best is yet to come: Lorena Hickok, Eleanor, with Earhart, flying high over Washington. With Eleanor flirting harmlessly with daring Amelia in the cockpit, dejected Hick sits behind them, facing us, giving in to all manner of jealous flights of fancy. In a series of loving ballads, she gives in to her abiding love for Eleanor, even though it ended her reporting career and flattened her self-respect. Laskowski soars in the role, bitingly ironic, gently romantic, caustically bitchy. With its haunting score, dramatic accuracy, and fanciful setting, this scene is the musical's highpoint. (The only glaring flaw is having Earhart wear an orange Empire gown under her leather flight jacket. What's with that? She should be wearing men's pants, which she promoted throughout her career, or at least a flight suit. Now that's Earhart.)
With sympathetic musical direction under Wiley DeWeese, and with a talented ensemble of singing actors all agilely staged by Erin Cressy, First Lady Suite sails through distaff White House history, sniffing under the bed and furtively looking through the medicine cabinet. Amazing, but what's found in the most famous house in the world is exactly what you'd find in your own. This work is tremendously entertaining, doubly so if you like your musicals novel and unknown.
John Michael LaChiusa's first important work for the stage runs through August 5 at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. Purchase tickets online at the company website or call 713-344-3751. $20-$25.