"First Lady Suite" at Theatre Elision
Finally, three years after the planned opening, Theatre Elision's production of First Lady Suite is taking flight! The pandemic-postponed show is a fine example of what Elision does best - small cast, one act, rarely done musicals featuring mostly female artists. Four short stories about four of our First Ladies are told by a cast of six in about 90 minutes, each one a gorgeous, funny, stirring mini-musical. The show is almost entirely sung through, with a unique, lovely, and evocative score by John Michael LaChiusa (see also Bernarda Alba, done by Theater Latte Da just prior to this show's planned original opening), and shows a different side to these historical figures we think we know. Only 7 performances remain*, so make your plans soon to see another rare gem by Theatre Elision (click here for info and tickets, including half-price and pay-what-you-can performances).
After a brief opening song about what it is to be a First Lady, we begin aboard Air Force One on that fateful flight to Dallas in November of 1963. Each one of these "vignettes" gives us a different way into the life of the first lady, here it's through a conversation between the President's and the First Lady's secretaries. Jackie's quirky secretary (Christine Wade) has a prophetic dream, in which we see Jackie (Sara Sawyer) in that iconic, tragic, historic moment riding in the car. Next we go on a fantastical flight with Mamie Eisenhower (Sara again), meeting famed Black opera singer Marian Anderson (Ilah Raleigh), with ties to several of these presidencies, and bringing her along to visit Ike (Paul R. Coate) and see what he's really up to when he's away at war. The shortest piece is First Daughter Margaret Truman (Abilene Olson) singing a lovely song, while her impatient mother, First Lady Bess Truman, is the epitome of the annoying audience member (a hilarious Greta Grosch). Finally, we're back in an airplane, this time as Amelia Earhart (Christine again) flies Eleanor Roosevelt (Sara's third First Lady performance) and her friend (and possible lover), reporter Lorena Hickock (Greta again, now with both humor and pathos). This is a show that inspires googling to find out more about the lives of these fascinating women, but it's no dry historical lesson. It's a funny and fantastical flight through history, that's also grounded in the humanity of these characters.
Lindsay Fitzgerald directs this incredible cast, with simple but effective staging. Each vignette feels like a full and complete story, whichc ombined together form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone in this cast has an incredibly beautiful and strong voice, and the harmonies are gorgeous. They're unmiked in this small space so the sound is pure and clear, accompanied by resident Music Director Harrison Wade on the keyboard, keeping this tricky score moving. Just a few simple set pieces on a bare stage, along with lighting changes (designed by Laina Grendle) and subtle projections (designed by Uriyah Dalman) set the scene. Lastly, I don't see a costume designer noted in the program, but they're gorgeous - perfect period dresses, from Jackie's iconic suit and pillbox hat (here in black) to Mamie's full-skirted polka-dot dress, and everything in between.
If Minneapolis Musical Theatre hadn't already taken the tagline "rare musicals, well done" (and deservedly so), Theatre Elision could use it too, with the added benefit that their pieces are also female focused and 90 minutes or less. First Lady Suite is a gorgeously sung and performed fantastical flight through history, giving voice and humanity to the women who supported** the presidents, for better or worse. See it now through May 6 at Elision Playhouse in Plymouth.
*This article was published to Playlist leading up to the final weekend and so number of performances left may be inaccurate.
**For more stories of the partners and supporters of historical figures, I recommend the podcast Significant Others, hosted by Liza Powel O'Brien, herself a "significant other" of a well-known figure.
This article originally appeared on Cherry and Spoon, a Minneapolis/St. Paul theater blog since 2010. Read more reviews of #TCTheater at https://cherryandspoon.com and follow on social media @cherryandspoon.
Photo by Jessica Holleque