Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

First Lady Suite
R&S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt and Jeanitta Perkins
I'm sure it's not exactly as clear-cut as this on Broadway. But around here (due to the economics of it all), you can pretty safely say "the bigger the theatre, the worse the Theater."

Which is not to say that big theatres only host bad shows. They just end up showcasing a lot of "safe" shows—and now and then a really awful one slips through the net, in the guise of Good Old-Fashioned Family Entertainment. (Interestingly, if you spell "old" as "auld," the acronym for this becomes "gaffe.")

Conversely (around here, anyway), smaller theaters can afford to do great, weird stuff that doesn't have to sell a thousand tickets to pay a big artistic staff along with the electric bill, too. It makes me feel sorry for people who go out on dates to the big touring shows that come barreling through town, and yet have no idea of the riches all around them every day, in smaller venues.

Which brings us to R&S Theatrics and its latest show at that terrific jewel, the Ivory Theatre. The cast is absolutely great, the music weaves a dissonant spell, and the humor is brilliantly wacky under the direction of Shulee Cook, with the surprisingly complex musical direction of Nick Moramarco. (The musical by Michael John LaChiusa first premiered Off-Broadway in 1993. On top of that, there are a surprising number of blood-chilling moments as we learn a totally different version of American history, from about 1940 to the present, through the eyes of six American first ladies: women of trial and tragedy, full of brains, drawing on great fortitude, and a strange kind of grandeur.

Christina Rios is eerily self-possessed, flickering in the prism of events on a fateful visit to Dallas, as a nearly inaccessible Jacqueline Kennedy. Katie Donnelly is actually the focus of this first vignette, adorable as Jackie's beleaguered personal assistant, and suffering a frightening vision of the impending assassination before their plane lands. Belinda Quimby is also bizarre and funny, popping in and out of the nightmare as Lady Bird Johnson, and Kay Love is extremely plausible as a lofty aide to the doomed young president.

Then, after that strangely jaw-dropping experience over Dallas, we jump back in time several years: it's late at night, and Mamie Eisenhower is alone in bed, falling asleep as she watches "I Love Lucy." In a dream, Ike's wife (the delightful Elizabeth Van Pelt) embarks on a madcap adventure of her own: filled with comical suspicion, as she hopes to trap her husband with a female chauffeur in Algiers. Along for the ride, as the uber-elegant opera singer Marian Anderson, is Jeanitta Perkins. Eventually, the unlikely pair goes paddling along an imaginary river, singing like Hope and Crosby till they track down the errant President (the charming Nathan Robert Hinds) with his soon-to-be unfortunate driver (once again, the crazy-funny Belinda Quimby).

That whole section is jaw-dropping, too, in it's own way: the stately Miss Anderson appears in the dream to beseech Mamie for help with the riots over desegregation in the American South. And Ms. Perkins' excellent projection of gravitas creates a web of intensity and historical importance for what would otherwise be a fantastic comic experience, thanks to the impish Ms. Van Pelt.

Did I mention what a great show this is? I can't remember.

I never really had much of an impression of Bess Truman, so I guess I can't fault Mr. LaChiusa and director Cook for squeezing Mr. Hinds into a granny dress and a bad wig to belittle poor daughter Margaret Truman (again, Ms. Rios) as she claws her way into a minor singing career. (The accounts I've heard always put Margaret Truman in the category of a political oddity, on stage and on the airwaves.) It's chilling and embarrassing and very funny, too.

Ms. Love returns as the legendary Eleanor Roosevelt for the evening's final segment, and you eventually forget she's too pretty for the role, as the native gusto of this particular first lady echoes through the theater. She goes flying with famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Ms. Quimby, in a refreshingly straight role here) and with Eleanor's own personal assistant, Lorena Hickok. Ms. Hickok is the focus of the segment, and in the role, Rachel Hanks bears a startling resemblance (every now and then) to the recently departed Lauren Bacall. She also sings and acts up a storm, over the trampling a young woman has to take in the shadow of a great woman, in a long scene that could easily have been the inspiration for an entire play itself. She makes a Herculean attempt (or, maybe we should say 'an attempt worthy of a first lady') to go on with her thankless job assisting Eleanor, in this moving interlude.

Ultimately, the clash of musical notes in the score—somehow strangely pleasant and haunting—is echoed in the unlikely combinations of characters simultaneously thrust together on the stage. The result, a constant sense of discovery and contrast (in both music and psychology), delights both the ear and the mind.

Through September 14, 2014, at the Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave. Consider bringing a sweater, as the A/C works extremely well. For more information visit www.r-stheatrics.com or call (314) 456-0071.

Characters in Vignettes

Over Texas
Evelyn Lincoln: Kay Love
Mary Gallagher: Katie Donnelly
A Presidential Aide: Nathan Robert Hinds
The First Lady: Christina Rios
Lady Bird Johnson: Belinda Quimby

Where's Mamie?
Mamie Eisenhower: Elizabeth Van Pelt
Marian Anderson: Jeanitta Perkins
Ike: Nathan Robert Hinds
Ike's Chauffeur: Belinda Quimby

Bess Truman: Nathan Robert Hinds
Margaret Truman: Christina Rios

Eleanor Sleeps Here
Eleanor Roosevelt: Kay Love
Hick: Rachel Hanks
Amelia Earhart: Belinda Quimby

Production Staff
Director: Shulee Cook
Music Director/Piano 1: Nick Moramarco
Production Manager: Nikki Lott
Scenic Designer: Kyra Bishop
Lighting Designer: Nathan Schroeder
Costume Designer: Amy Harrison
Asst. Costume Designer: Ruth Schmalenberger
Sound Designer: Mark Kelley
Sound Board Operator: Louis Sinn
Piano 2: Leah Luciano

Photo: Gerry Love

-- Richard T. Green