‘First Lady Suite’ Brings Modern, Well-Sung Music To American Repertory Theater

BUFFALO -Twenty years ago, Westfield native Michael John La Chiusa opened his first musical show in New York City.

Since then, his compositions have opened on Broadway and off, on a regular basis, but Friday evening, his first show to be performed in Western New York opened at the American Repertory Theater of Western New York. And, it’s a delight.

”First Lady Suite” is a collection of four short musical tales, each dealing with a recent wife of a president. They begin with Jacqueline Kennedy, then move backward through history, to Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

There is a great deal of humor in the work, but there is genuine artistic exploration of what it would be like to have one’s spouse become arguably the most powerful person in the world, and to be subject to all the rabid publicity, the pressures and demands and exhausting labor, yet to be perpetually reminded that one is a figure, with no power beyond access, which has rarely been fruitful, throughout history.

Matthew LaChiusa, brother of the composer, is artistic director of ART of WNY, and he directed this production. He has assembled quite good production values, considering the youth and ambitions of his company. Michael Hake was musical director, and accompanies the singers flawlessly on keyboard.

The first act of the show is called ”Over Texas,” and the principal actors are Mary Ryan, portraying Mary Gallagher, Mrs. Kennedy’s personal assistant, and Shayna Rachilson-Zadok, portraying Evelyn Lincoln, the president’s secretary. The two women are shown aboard Air Force One, as the presidential plane approaches Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, for its date with destiny.

The secretary clearly has a crush on her boss, while the personal assistant is fed up to the teeth with her employer’s demands, and her constant concerns over petty details. Ms. Gallagher falls asleep in her seat, and has a series of dreams. Some humorous, about Lady Bird Johnson, for example, but finally she dreams of Jackie in her famous pink suit, recounting the horrors of her position, and finally the horrors of the assassination ahead. Katy Miner caught well both the elegance and the possible challenges of Mrs. Kennedy.

My personal favorite segment was the second one, titled ”Where’s Mamie,” which begins with the famously dowdy and non-glamorous Mrs. Eisenhower waking on her birthday, to learn that her husband has left for Little Rock, where the very early events of the Civil Rights Movement are taking place. Deciding that her position and her birthday entitle her to overpower time and space, she goes off to Little Rock herself, where she encounters famed African American opera singer Marian Anderson. Katie McMahon gave both humorous qualities, and yet an aching wound of a personality, who has obeyed the rules all her life, and now is alone on her birthday, all the same. Jackie Davis sang beautifully the demanding music written for Ms. Anderson, trying to convince Mamie to speak out for the cause.

”Olio” was the shortest segment, and represented an appearance by Bess Truman and her daughter Margaret, who tried so hard to start a career as a singer, while her father was president. Here, Margaret is singing at a mother-daughter banquet, but mother makes noises in the background, both mechanical and biological, until I thought some in the audience would split. John Calvin met the challenges of playing Bess very well, and Mary Ryan suffered as Margaret, with great charm.

The final segment was rather long, I thought. It takes place in a small airplane. Supposedly at a banquet, Mrs. Roosevelt has told famed pilot Amelia Earhart that she has never flown, so the flyer has invited the first lady and her friend Lorena Hickock up for a spin over the capital. The show has played fast and loose with the laws of physics through the entire evening, but when the women step out on the wing to smoke and have private conversations, it jumps the shark.

The music is very modern, but I found it very appealing. The singing was very good, and the music carried the plot beautifully.

”First Lady Suite” will repeat March 6-9 and 13-16 in Bittner Hall, at 16 Linwood Ave., in Buffalo. It’s in the rear of the Church of the Ascension, which fronts on North Street.