Despite Dissonant Score, Political Satire And Great Acting Reigns At “First Lady Suite”

Elizabeth Van Pelt as a wide-eyed Mamie Eisenhower and Jeanitta Perkins as Marian Anderson in "First Lady Suite" at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt as a wide-eyed Mamie Eisenhower and Jeanitta Perkins as Marian Anderson in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

One of Michael John LaChiusa’s first scores, the chamber musical, “First Lady Suite,” is an odd duck that shows the frustrations of being the President’s wife through satire and a score that is more dissonance than melody. R-S Theatrics, a bold innovator on our local theatre scene, has brought this musical to our city for the first time. With the quirky story lines about four first ladies and some wonderful casting, they succeed despite the score that runs the gamut from beautiful to irritating.

Our first first lady is Jackie Kennedy who is flying over Texas in Air Force One en route to that tragic day in Dallas. R-S Artistic Director, Christina Rios takes on the role of the first lady with a proper if somewhat flummoxed manner. She delights with her off-center behavior and frequent asides to Belinda Quimby’s hysterical Lady Bird Johnson. Also in this vignette is a great comic performance by Katie Donnelly as her aide who is just, as she puts it, “pooped” from running around with the first lady. Kay Love shines as does the only man in the cast, Nathan Robert Hinds, to fill out the unusual yet creepy circumstances leading up to the assassination.

Christina Rios as Margaret Truman, belts out her number as Nathan Robert Hinds as Bess grumbles in the background in R-S Theatrics' "First Lady Suite." Photo: Michael Young

Christina Rios as Margaret Truman, belts out her number as Nathan Robert Hinds as Bess grumbles in the background in R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.” Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt gives us a looney-tunes look at Mamie Eisenhower. She is a master at throwing out the bat-guano-crazy dialogue as if it made sense and a series of facial expressions that are absolutely priceless. Her friend, opera star Marian Anderson is given a straight-forward and beautiful performance by Jeanitta Perkins while Mr. Hinds plays Ike and Ms. Quimby returns as the chauffeur. It’s all so nonsensical but somehow charming due to this broadly interpreted portrayal of Mamie.

Rachel Hanks shines in "First Lady Suite" at R-S Theatrics as she sings of her life with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as they fly with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby). Photo: Michael Young

Rachel Hanks shines in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics as she sings of her life with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as they fly with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby). Photo: Michael Young

I’m not sure if the original “First Lady Suite” was performed as a cantata but it has that feel. This production offers an intermission between the almost hour first act and an even shorter second act. Act II opens with Christina Rios returning as Margaret Truman and Nathan Robert Hinds in drag as her mother, Bess. Knowing the real life penchant for singing that Margaret had and her mother’s complete lack of faith in her abilities, this may be the closest to the truth about the four first ladies represented in this program. Margaret fumbles through her solo as the mother sits in the background tossing off candid, caustic remarks. Despite the beautiful singing voice of Ms. Rios, this one really brings the best laughs of the night.

We finish up with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as she is flying high with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby) and gushing over her every move and mastery of the plane. The real star of this piece, however, is Rachel Hanks as Mrs. Roosevelt’s press secretary, affectionately known as Hick. Though Eleanor seeks out Hick’s approval and reassurance on every remark and observation she makes, she never really listens to her. This piece turns into a brilliant soliloquy by Rachel Hanks pouring out her frustration of giving up a promising career in journalism to follow the first lady around the world. Once more emphasizing the worthlessness of the ladies compared to the powerful presidents they’re married to, this satirical political revue hits the mark despite being a very jaded look at the situations of these four ladies in particular.

Katie Donnelly and Kay Love sing their frustrations at serving Jackie Kennedy during the opening vignette at R-S Theatrics' "First Lady Suite." Photo: Michael Young

Katie Donnelly and Kay Love sing their frustrations at serving Jackie Kennedy during the opening vignette at R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.” Photo: Michael Young

Director Shualee Cook really drives the point home with his broad interpretation of the piece and set designer Kyra Bishop has worked wonders with a small space and just a few pieces that comprise planes, hotel rooms and such. Nathan Schroeder’s lights add the proper drama and the costume designs of Amy Harrison are a great combination of smart and witty. Musical director Nick Moramarco provides the needed emphasis to the unusual score with assistance from Leah Luciano. Some projections and occasional video almost get lost, however, with the washed out look of the screen from the stage lights.

This one’s not for everyone. In fact, on press night, we generally had a strong line of demarcation among the reviewers on who liked it and who didn’t with very little “middle of the road” comments. I, for one, enjoyed the powerful cast bringing every bit of tongue-in-cheek to the often outrageous dialogue and they really mastered this difficult score with agility and charm. For a most unusual evening of theatre, head to the Ivory Theatre to see “First Lady Suite” as presented by R-S Theatrics. Give them a call at 314-456-0071 or contact them at r-stheatrics.com for tickets or more information. It plays through September 14th.

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