BWW Reviews: FIRST LADY SUITE - A Mesmerizing Celebration of Extraordinary Women
Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co. is continuing their tradition of bringing complex and thrilling theatre to Houston audiences with Michael John LaChiusa's operetta-like musical FIRST LADY SUITE. Just a couple years out of high school, the young administrative and creative team behind Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co.'s productions is simply inspiring, producing a series of fantastic theatrical events. These talented young artists find and direct casts and crews that convey the intricate works they choose so well that the audience can't help but be blown away, and they make it look so easy on top of it all.
Creating art without concern for if it will be a big blockbuster, Michael John LaChiusa's FIRST LADY SUITE, like his other works, is rich in complexity and depth. Erin Cressy's faultless direction expertly allows each actress in the piece to convey the themes of seeking identity and self-discovery to the audience. Likewise, Erin Cressy expertly utilizes her performance space, filling it when necessary but keeping it decidedly bare so that all attention is given to the emotionality of the words, facial expressions, and score. Michael John LaChiusa is generally known for creating thought provoking, complicated pieces and Erin Cressy's superb direction ensures that the power of Michael John LaChiusa's FIRST LADY SUITE is wholly delivered.
Reminiscent of the United States' current First Lady, Regina Morgan consistently delivers powerhouse opera vocals throughout the show. Like the audience, Regina Morgan's First Lady is a witness to the stories that unfold on the stage and only participates in the framing moments ("Opening: Flight" and "Closing: Flight"); yet, Regina Morgan also portrays the famous opera singer Marian Anderson during Mamie Eisenhower's story. Throughout the show, Regina Morgan's presence is known but not distracting. Regina Morgan deftly portrays a woman who is seeking to understand her place as a First Lady of the United States, learning from the women who have come before her.
Abby Seible adeptly portrays Evelyn Lincoln, secretary to John F. Kennedy, and Eleanor Roosevelt in the production. Her Evelyn Lincoln is collected, calm, and genuinely nice. Exuding poise in both roles, Abby Seible is fantastic throughout the show; however, her performance as Eleanor Roosevelt is a highlight of the evening. Abby Seible's Eleanor is warm and humorous in her giddiness, providing a perfect contrast for Julia Kay Laskowski's Lorena "Hick" Hickok.
As Mary Gallagher, secretary to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Margaret Truman, Betty Marie Muessig shows true star quality. Unlike the smoldering character she portrayed in NO EXIT, these characters are both nervous, anxiety-addled women, which Betty Marie Muessig skillfully portrays. Betty Marie Muessig's nervous energy as Mary Gallagher supremely frames her character's nightmare about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, making that moment profound and captivating. In the second act, as Margaret Truman, Betty Marie Muessig's portrayal of nervousness brings out multitudes of laughs, showcasing her comedic timing.
Brad Zimmerman portrays a Presidential Aide, Dwight "Ike" D. Eisenhower, and most-memorably Bess Truman in the show, which reduces the audience to fits of laughter. While not given much time on stage, Brad Zimmerman makes the most of his part and is perfectly cast in each of his three roles.
Gina-Marie Vincent's portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy is remarkably stirring and emotionally raw. Betty Marie Muessig adroitly sets the tone for Gina-Marie Vincent's sung soliloquy, and Gina-Marie Vincent adeptly delivers. Later in the show, Gina-Marie Vincent convincingly portrays Ike's Chauffeur and Amelia Earhart.
As Mamie Eisenhower, Karen Ross delivers a solid and enthralling performance. The audience easily buys into her grief over Ike Eisenhower having meetings on her birthday and her ultimate search for her identity in the shadow of the President of the United States. She touches the audience emotionally, moving the audience back and forth from laughs to heart break.
Most impressively, Julia Kay Laskowski masterfully moves the audience with her portrayal of Lorena "Hick" Hickok. She is enjoyable for a good chuckle or two as Lady Bird Johnson in the first act, but steals the show in second act. This is not to discredit any of the other performers; however, I feel Michael John LaChuisa's best writing in FIRST LADY SUITE is his "Eleanor Sleeps Here" segment. Thus, Julia Kay Laskowski gets to shine, beautifully singing her way through the show's best material. Julia Kay Laskowski perfectly exposes each maligned and raw emotion that comes from creating someone else's identity while ignoring your own for years, just to have so little reciprocated. Nimbly moving through jealousy, depression, and anger, Julia Kay Laskoski mesmerizes the audience for her whole performance.
Wiley DeWeese, as musical director, convinces the audience that this complex score is easy to perform. For that alone he is deserving of countless kudos. Likewise, he and Erin Cressy together have ensured that every vocal performance is spot-on and perfect, which I can safely assume was no easy feat, yet they make it look so effortless. Moreover, every technical aspect of the show is wonderfully designed and implemented. The set is sparse and versatile. The costuming and wig design captures each of the iconic figures perfectly. The lighting is dramatic when needed, but like the set maintains a simplistic quality which allows the story telling to remain at the forefront of the production.
FIRST LADY SUITE is no doubt a challenging piece to pull off, but Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co. does it beautifully. Nothing is out of place in their polished production. It is a definite must-see theatrical event. Powerfully, FIRST LADY SUITE celebrates women in a time when all the press seems to care about is Gabby Ross' hair and not her achievements. It is truly sublime to see women given the stage so that audiences can celebrate the struggles of womanhood-especially womanhood under public scrutiny-along with the cast and crew.
Bit of a Stretch Threatre Co.'s production of Michael John LaChiusa's marvelous FIRST LADY SUITE continues to run until Sunday, August 5, 2012 at Studio 101 in the Spring Street Studios complex. You don't have much time left to see this one, so rush out and see it soon. For more information and tickets, please visit http://bitofastretch.org/ or call 1-800-838-3006.Poster by Audra LaRosse & Photos by SKG Photogrpahy.
Gina-Marie Vincent as Jackie Kennedy
Julia Kay Laskowski as Lorena "Hick" Hickok