Theater archives

White House secrets: ‘Ladies’ reveal their hidden stresses


While U.S. presidents are famous for standing on the Constitution, first ladies—at least in Transport Group’s new revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical about them—stand on the Great Seal, a circular reproduction of which is the main acting area of John Story’s set for this tiny, charmingly rueful string of Pop Art chamber musicals about the woes of being America’s most prominent political hostess and official spouse. To the accompaniment of LaChiusa’s plangently reiterative tunes—show music gone wittily minimalist—Jackie’s secretary has a premonitory dream of her boss’s distress just as the presidential jet lands in Dallas; Mamie, tipsy and alone on her birthday, fantasizes zooming off with Marian Anderson to make Dwight solve Little Rock’s school-integration crisis; Margaret Truman recitalizes to the accompaniment of audible wheezes from Bess; and Lorena Hickock bluesily bemoans the misery of being the first lady’s first lady, while Eleanor makes eyes at Amelia Earhart.

First produced at the Public Theater in 1993, LaChiusa’s pointed, poignant cameos, with their gentle mix of sympathy and satire, are best when least weighty: Restoring material cut back then (a choral prologue and epilogue, the buffoonish Margaret Truman “olio”) mainly shows that it deserved cutting. But the three main pieces hold up well. Jack Cummings III’s production, almost too static in its austerity, has the advantage of letting its solidly talented cast stand still and hold forth. Mary Testa’s Lorena Hickock and Sherry D. Boone’s Marian Anderson walk away with the vocal honors, but these first ladies are a thoroughly electable bunch.