First Lady Suite

First-Lady-SuiteOriginal Los Angeles Cast, 2002 (PS Classics) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Although Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite premiered Off-Broadway in 1993, the piece wasn’t recorded until it was staged in Los Angeles nine years later. While the resulting cast album reveals a score packed with the kind of lyrical and musical invention that LaChiusa displays in all of his work, it’s a dense listen, difficult to fully absorb even on multiple hearings. Once assimilated, however, it sticks with you. LaChiusa’s musicalization of emblematic moments in the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt is full of trenchant emotional insights. Most creative is the Eisenhower sequence, distilled to musical comedy proportions, with Eydie Alyson hilarious as Mamie and Gregory Jbara effective as her husband; also impressive is Paula Newsome as the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson. The remaining material makes less of an impression, partly because the other performers are more functional than exceptional. (Some moments that may have been brilliant in the theater were not successfully captured for the recording.) Still, much of this show remains moving, not only in its portrayals of significant figures in American history, but also because LaChiusa was willing to take the sort of chances that are rarely taken by other contemporary musical theater composers.  — Matthew Murray