Exploring snatches of not only the lives of the significant First Ladies; including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy and the current first lady Michelle Obama, but also their right hand women, First Lady Suite is a well rounded, informative musical with some meaty roles for female performers.
Richard Jones and Take Note Theatre have a lot to be proud of with their production of First Lady Suite, which incidentally, is also the first UK professional premiere.
The Union Theatre is fast becoming recognised as a clear leader for bringing new musical theatre to the Fringe stage in London. Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite is another winner for this versatile and creative theatre space. Richard Jones and Take Note Theatre have a lot to be proud of with their production of First Lady Suite, which incidentally, is also the first UK professional premiere.
First Lady Suite comes from the hand of a quite inaccessible composer in Michael John LaCuisa. It is quite difficult to get sucked into his work and you certainly do not come away humming the tunes, and yet something about this ensemble and the subject matter is captivating and sticks around. The tightly bound ensemble, crucial for the smaller chamber musical is versatile and completely in tune with the work they are presenting. Exploring snatches of not only the lives of the significant First Ladies; including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy and the current first lady Michelle Obama, but also their right hand women, First Lady Suite is a well rounded, informative musical with some meaty roles for female performers.
The Union has been split in half to create a small intimate in the round space with a circular raised disc as the central playing space the stage that looks uncannily like a round chess board. The space is flanked by vertical beams which not only support the roof, but completely compliment the set. Libby Lee’s exquisite set and costume designs ensured the audience was taken away to another world, and are in tune with not only the musical itself, but alongside the excellent acting, knit everything together nicely to ensure the production is coherent as a whole. Particularly worthy of note was the delicate attention to detail with the set, where during the airplane scene small red pin lights on the stage in two parallel lines representing the plane aisle. Lighting Designer Robert Watts incorporates them by attaching spotlights so when the women stand against them as if in the First Lady Exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, they are highlighted in just the right level of light and shadow.
First Lady Suite’s one fault is that some of the stories are drawn out slightly too long, notably the section Over Texas about Mary Gallagher, Evelyn Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy and the scenes with Maime Eisenhower. With some scenes running a little over their welcome, a few nips and tucks wouldn’t have gone astray; and yet this is a small quibble with a musical that has, overall, been presented in an exciting, innovative and entertaining way.
Poppy Tierney who commands two lead characters playing the iconic Jacquie Kennedy and also Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s public relations advisor (amongst many other things) brings a completely different approach with each of her roles and shines as Hickok. Claire Maichin is bouncy, bubbly and full of light and colour as the endearing Maime Eisenhower. Robine Landi has an exquisite voice and manages to play a multitude of roles to chameleon like affect. Her turn as Margaret Truman and Amelia Earhart particularly stand out. Abi Finley is strong as Jacqui Kennedy’s assistant Mary Gallagher capturing her whining tone and want for a more glamorous life. Annabelle Williams does not entirely convince as Michelle Obama but showcases her true talent as opera singer Marian Anderson. Virginie Gilchrist is solid in her roles as Evelyn Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt. The one man of the group Alex McNamara rather overplays his roles, but as the singular male in a bevy of women he makes a stellar effort and as a result is an important piece of the puzzle for the musical as a whole.
This is a musical that delivers moments in time captured in song, and yet not quite whole, ensuring the audience must either have done their research before going to the theatre or captivates them brush up on a little US history after their theatre visit. First Lady Suite and its competent British team certainly deliver a slick, cohere ant and imagination spinning evening of theatre. This is well worth going to see and though the intimacy of the Union suits the musical and its ensemble, given the stellar performances and excellent production values, a bigger space and a longer run for First Lady Suite would be most welcomed.
Reviewed by Skye Crawford 7th October 2009