Back in 1993, First Lady Suite was LaChiusa’s calling card, his first Off-Broadway production before the successes of The Wild Party and Marie Christine. And from the off, this piece showcases his talent for a knowing, musically sophisticated score and lyrics that sidestep cliché while still ringing true.
Made up of four vignettes, featuring Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, the show is bookended with a new prologue and epilogue for the Obama era that also highlight LaChiusa’s central metaphor. “You know what I wished for?” sings the company in soaring unison. “I wished for flight.”
Thus, we see Jacqui aboard Air Force One on her husband’s fateful trip to Dallas, Mamie taking a plane back in time to witness Ike’s philandering in Algiers, and Eleanor at the controls of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra above Washington DC. Each reveals the inherent sacrifice of the first lady role, though LaChiusa is careful not to paint them too kindly. At times, his irreverence for these latter-day saints verges on the blasphemous, as in the delicious, if slightly pointless, drag turn from Alex McNamara as Bess Truman.
Making the most of a show that provides some rare roles for mature performers, director Rania Jumaily has assembled a wealth of experience in her seven-strong cast. Claire Machin is particularly memorable as Mamie, while Abi Finley’s turn as Jacqui’s long-suffering PA is a reminder of the beautiful voice showcased on the BBC’s Maria. Sadly, Annabelle Williams, who plays both Obama and a civil rights-era opera singer, lost hers due to illness on the night, but did her Sprechstimme best.
Candida Caldicot and Fergal O’Mahony are superb on piano, while Libby Lee’s sleek set, enhanced by some sparing sound and projection design, is simple but effective. If only the show were allowed to run for its full 90 minutes without interval, as momentum was lost for what LaChiusa clearly intends as his most powerful scene.
Like all his work, First Lady Suite is an intensely American piece, assuming familiarity not only with its subject, but with the New York chamber musical itself. Whether LaChiusa will find a wider UK audience remains in question, but with Little Fish soon to open at the Finborough, this may just be his year.