Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Lucky Nurse" Sings About Life, First Ladies and Loneliness at IWU

Michael John LaChiusa is one of a new generation of composers in American musical theater, a generation that seems to be trying to push the boundaries of what kind of music, what kind of songs, what kind of stories belong in a musical. LaChiusa is, to my ear, the most experimental and least accessible of that group, but that seems to be the way he likes it. In fact, he's on record taking issue with the bright, pop stylings of other, more popular Broadway composers, decrying their lack of "risk, derring-do or innovation."

LaChiusa is also the one of that group most inclined to delve into the messiness, griminess and despair of modern life. There's plenty of darkness there, with relentless, discordant, fragmented music and sharp, pointy lyrics that jab us repeatedly with his bleak world view.

In the short musical plays presented as a showcase for IWU's spring 2011 Music Theatre Workshop class under the direction of Scott Susong, the themes of work and its worth, life and its worth, and how we keep trying to feel something in this world, come up again and again. Susong has chosen the pieces included in the "Four Short Operas" collection -- "Break," "Agnes," "Eulogy for Mister Hamm" and "Lucky Nurse" -- all dealing with down-and-out denizens of New York City leading hopeless, unhappy lives in different decades of the 20th century, as well as "Over Texas" and "Eleanor Sleeps Here" from LaChiusa's "First Lady Suite," and two brief selections involving Medieval Japan from "See What I Wanna See."

This is difficult music to perform and to communicate, and all of the students involved have clearly dug in and worked hard to pull it off.

For me, the two "First Lady" pieces emerged as the strongest in this program, as we see how women who work for Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt struggle with the lives they lead, the menial work they do, and the things they've given up to be where they are. It helps that these are the most approachable stories, too, since we all know a little bit about presidential wives coming in.

In "Over Texas," Caitlin Borek was sympathetic and sweet as Jackie's assistant, worrying about her cat and suffering bad dreams about what will happen when they land, Abby Root was capable and strong as Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's secretary, Kristen Evensen was tragic and beautiful wearing Jackie's trademark pink suit and pillbox hat and living one moment over and over, and Laura Martino provided comic relief floating through as Lady Bird Johnson.

"Eleanor Sleeps Here" offered the most accessible, most melodic music, performed very nicely by Melina Rey, who played "Hick," Mrs. Roosevelt's right-hand woman. In Rey's hands, Hick became the most fully-rounded, most interesting character of the evening, whether she was chafing at the lack of attention she got or supposedly smoking a cigar while perched on the wing of an airplane flying over Washington DC. Kristen Evensen did a 180 from her previous role as Jackie Kennedy by taking on Amelia Earhart in this one, while Erika Lecaj contributed fine work as Eleanor herself.

I also found "Lucky Nurse" strangely compelling, although I don't pretend to have understood what it added up to. But Brooke Trantor was intriguing as the titular nurse, thinking through whether to put her dog down as she arrives at the hospital where she works, Nicholas Reinhart and Marlee Turim went all-out as the boy and girl involved in a sleazy hook-up, and Andrew Temkin hinted at something scary and dark as the cabbie who completes a rainy late-night circle involving an umbrella and an abandoned baby.

I also didn't really get "Eulogy for Mister Hamm," where three people who live in a low-rent apartment building in New York in the 70s wait for the one bathroom on their floor and talk about whether their super is dead, but I could still appreciate the performances of Chase Miller as a going-nowhere guy, Laura Martino as an odd woman clutching a boot and obsessing about death, and Abby Root, looking like a doppelganger for Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver," as a sad young woman with related kidney and boyfriend issues.

Marcia K. McDonald's costume design made all of the decades represented pop perfectly, with excellent use of bad old fashion and bad old eyeglasses, while director Susong's scenic design added pop art panels and doors to add mood and texture to the black box and intimate surroundings of the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre at Wesleyan.

I don't think LaChiusa's stripped-down music and characters will ever be my favorites, although I'm willing to keep listening, hoping there's more like "Eleanor Sleeps Here" in his body of work.

Words and music by Michael John LaChiusa

The E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Scott Susong
Musical Director: Gloria Cardon-Smith
Additional Staging: Chloe Whiting Stevenson and Sheri Marley
Scenic Designer: Scott Susong
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Armie Thompson
Stage Manager: Nicholas Reinhart
Percussion: Jacob Bisaillon
Piano: Gloria Cardoni-Smith

Cast: Caitlin Borek, Blake Brauer, Josh Conrad, Ian Coulter-Buford, Kristen Evensen, Vince Gargaro, Erika Lecaj, Laura Martino, Chase Miller, Roz Prickel, Nicholas Reinhart, Melina Rey, Abby Root, Peter Studlo, Andrew Temkin, Brooke Trantor, Julie Tucker, Marlee Turim and Laura Williams.

Friday, April 22, 2011


  1. I'm intrigued by the poster art, which seems to be from comic strips of the dramatic type. It could almost be "On Stage," in fact.

  2. Well, let's hope Michael John LaChiusa isn't interested in Mary Perkins. He doesn't seem like he would suit her at all.

    Is there a new one available yet? I check from time to time.

    (And thanks for all your help, Jon.)

  3. Thanks for coming out. The poster art is Midwestern collage artist Greg Gossel.