Eleanor is one of those shows that has been around for a while. It is the kind of show that many people may have heard about but they probably have not had a chance to see a production, or even hear any of it. The show was written over 10 years ago as a commissioned work for Theaterworks/USA where it was known as First Lady. The first full production was in 1987 and the first Equity production was presented at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1990. Eleanor was recently produced at Ford's theater in Washington D.C. The book is by Jonathan Bolt, with music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by John Forster. The cast recording features the original leads from the Ford's Theater production - Anne Kanengeiser as Eleanor, and Anthony Cummings as Franklin.
Eleanor is a lush musical with period music in the style of Ragtime or Fiorello!. You can easily understand why people who have heard or seen this show have a strong affinity for it, wanting to hear it again and again. The melodies are memorable; not a string of showstoppers, but songs that flow effortless throughout the composition.
The booklet accompanying a cast recording CD is always important, especially for a little-produced show. For Eleanor a synopsis, instead of a libretto, is provided and is presented as a photo journal. This really helps fill in the listener's experience with enough visuals to be able to create a mental picture of how the show might look. Missing are complete cast photos and full scenery aspects often found on cast albums, but there are some costumed photos and publicity stills which add to the aural experience. A few archive photos of the Ford's production are interspersed as well.
The real benchmark of a good show album is the ability to "see" the show with your ears. Descriptive lyrics, dialogue snippets, and intelligible lyrics are factors of this process which Eleanor has crafted well into the recording.
All of the production and packaging would be for naught, however, if the book, music and lyrics were lacking. Fortunately for Eleanor these are the production's strengths. The story line moves from the time of courtship of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt through their marriage, and the emergence of the role Eleanor Roosevelt inherits as F.D.R.'s health declines. From this recording the musical does not appear to be a heavy and complex story. Nor does it seem to be a slave to detail that historical biographies like this can be.
Eleanor is a sweet, melodic, character study of the events that shaped the person we know from the history books. Like 1776, you know what is going to happen, but the show lets you know why certain decisions were made and events happened. It does not pull punches, talking openly about F.D.R.'s affairs and how the Roosevelt's marriage became one of convenience. But the lyrics do not drop down to the preachy plodding form that historical musicals often succumb to. Instead of documenting the rise of F.D.R. to power, the story stays well grounded in keeping Eleanor as the central and driving figure.
Anne Kanengeiser has a strong passionate voice that helps create a character you want to succeed. Her understated strength and clarity with power in reserve will remind you of many of the characters that actress/singer Judy Kuhn has brought to life. All of this helps shape a strong female character central to the production. The down side of this is that the other actors sound more like featured players displaying the distinctive characteristics of their historical figures. Teddy Roosevelt is Bully and Sara Delano Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt get a moment in the sun in helping shape Eleanor, but promptly disappear when their task is done.
The only characters to span these days in her life are Anthony Cummings' Franklin and Louis Howe, played by Steve Routman. Mr. Cummings has the pampered sing song tone your ear expects to hear in F.D.R., but by the end of the album you feel that you do not know his character's personality. You get to know the president in this portrayal about as well as you did in the musical Annie. Louis Howe has that stubby cigar "what's in it for me?" view on life. He is the sounding board/narrator for Eleanor, but plays more like Miss Saigon's Engineer, then Fiorello's Marie, which is his theatrical equivalent.
The bottom line is that Eleanor has that look and feel of the old time classic musical where no one dies, you do not have to think too hard, and they all come out on top. This is the type of show that Broadway always clamors to see in lieu of revivals that evoke the same warm fuzzy feelings. But as history has shown, these are the shows that never seem to get that critical or financial support that it takes to make it today on Broadway. Fortunately you get the opportunity to hear this rich and buoyant production that has had much more life as a great addition to the subscription- based theater circuit.
More information is available at the Eleanor website.