Even if it weren't a presidential election year, the time would still be right for a revival of Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite. The Transport Group production, now playing at the Connelly Theatre through April 17, makes almost as good a case for the musical as one could hope for. Almost.
There are certainly no flaws to be found in the show's casting. The ensemble, quite possibly the strongest assembled this season, includes vocal heavy-hitters Sherry D. Boone and Julia Murney, master comic actresses Ruth Gottschall and Mary Testa, and New York theatre stalwarts Donna Lynne Champlin, James Hindman, and Mary Beth Peil. When they're brought together with excellent musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Jana Zielonka, pitch-perfect musical staging by Tessa Buss, and eye-catching costumes by Kathryn Robe, what could prevent the evening from being an almost complete triumph?
What this First Lady Suite needs most is what it doesn't get: a firm directorial vision from Jack Cummings III. Cummings's staging is efficient, but with a piece as complex and fragile as this one, efficiency alone is insufficient. That's due in part to the somewhat splintered nature of the show, which tracks - in reverse chronological order - four different presidents' wives and the impact of other important women on their lives.
There's one connecting thematic thread, that of the First Ladies taking flight and acting as trendsetters in eras of climactic social upheaval. As if to underscore this, three of the show's four scenes are set either partially or entirely in some form of aircraft: "Over Texas" finds the secretaries to President and Jacqueline Kennedy anxiously awaiting touching down in Dallas on November 22, 1963; "Where's Mamie?" sends Mrs. Eisenhower and opera singer Marian Anderson on an imaginary flight to the past to help repair 1957 race relations; and "Eleanor Sleeps Here" finds Eleanor Roosevelt and her faithful friend, reporter Lorena Hickock, confronting history aboard Amelia Earhart's plane.
Cummings only ties these segments together through production assistant Alyson Grossman, who performs the scene changes dressed as a stewardess. (The minimal scenery, designed by John Story, consists primarily of a large Presidential Seal platform and chairs; R. Lee Kennedy designed the show's lights.) Yet the opening number, added since the original production to set up the flight metaphor, is staged statically and non-specifically, giving Cummings nothing to build upon. Only in the third of the show's four segments, "Olio," which finds Bess Truman disrupting her daughter Margaret's concert, does Cummings find his footing; that segment has practically nothing to do with flight.
With a lesser cast, the lack of a strong guiding force might have proved devastating rather than just damaging, but these performers can basically do no wrong. Among the (many) highlights: Cheryl Stern's hilarious Lucille Ball-inspired Mamie Eisenhower; Boone, who delivers her second-scene aria "Melba, Gloria" with unquenchable operatic fervor; Testa triumphing over her marathon role of Lorena Hickock; Murney's intensity as Earhart when singing to Hickock of "Great Ladies"; the unspoken feelings and palpable tension between Champlin's Mary Gallagher and Robyn Hussa's Jacqueline Kennedy; and Ruth Gottschall and James Hindman as Margaret and Bess Truman in the uproarious "Olio."
Across the board, the performers make the most of what they're given. And they're given a lot: from the thoroughly Presidential opening number, through the modern, uncertain strains of "Over Texas," to the brash comedy of "Where's Mamie?" (which includes a brilliant homage to South Pacific), First Lady Suite bursts with dramatic and musical color. It's a frequently ravishing tribute to the trailblazing women responsible for shaping the country, though their achievements have often gone unrecognized.
But First Lady Suite is as likely to be emotionally chilly as it is musically and lyrically exquisite. Much of the show is academic in feel, seeming overly eager to speak to the intellect but not touch the heart. Had Cummings's work been more creatively and appropriately applied, the effect of this might have been better masked, though probably not obscured completely.
Even so, with superb craftsmanship and an unbeatable cast, this First Lady Suite will be a must-see for most musical theatre connoisseurs, even if the show, at least in this rendition, is never completely emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.