AUFBAU 65:21 October 15, 1999 p.14 CULTURE & ARTS [Eleanor: An American Love Story]
Eleanor Roosevelt brought to life on the stage
Musical Echoes of Hillary at Hofstra
560 words by Leonard Lehrman
A packed house at Hofstra's John Crawford Adams Playhouse witnessed the climax October 2 of the university's Eleanor Roosevelt Conference: ten actors (including director and book-writer Jonathan Bolt) and a pianist (the able Albert Ahronheim) brought Eleanor to life as not even the astutest scholarly observer could. The music, subtitled "An American Love Story," was presented "in concert," but nearly fresh from its fully-staged ten-week run last spring at Ford's Theater in Washington, with virtually the same cast.
Anne Kanengeiser was radiant in the title role, fighting and conquering one adversity after another: first by successfully lecturing Anthony Cummings (as Franklin Delano Roosevelt) on "How the Other Half Lives"--inspired by Jacob Riis's writings and her own volunteer work in settlement houses; then by outfoxing her mother-in-law Sarah Delano Roosevelt (played by Rita Gardner, whose pert Girl in The Fantasticks and Sister Mister in The Cradle Will Rock are fondly recalled by the more mature spunk she now delivers) who wants to know why what Eleanor does as a volunteer "can't be done by someone other than the mother of the children of my son!"; and then, most poignantly, by the prospect of a younger rival for her husband, her own secretary Lucy Mercer (the beautiful blonde Kate Jetmore). Eleanor's solution: "I am what I do."
The parallels with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Monica Lewinsky could not have escaped any audience member's mind. Mrs. Clinton came to see the show at Ford's Theater, and has been an ardent supporter of it in its many incarnations--in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Washington D.C., and Riverside Park in New York. The work actually began life over a decade ago as a one-hour children's show in New York called First Lady. But it is now definitely for adults as well, and will certainly remain topical at least until November 2000.
Tapping into ragtime and the broad vaudeville of Fiorello (Rudy Giuliani's favorite musical character) in the portrayal of FDR's urbane advisor Louis Howe (the excellent Steve Routman), the show's real stars are the intelligent, often Sondheimian music of Thomas Tierney-- who is also a lyricist--and the brilliant lyrics of John Forster--who is also a composer, well-versed in the Harvard of several generations of Roosevelts. (Bolt, Tierney, and Forster have also collaborated on a Theodore Roosevelt musical we would love to see.)
Forster's first musical, the Hasty Pudding's Bottoms Up, is gleefully quoted here. And though one may raise an eyebrow at "gauche" being rhymed with "brioche," the argument could be made for an early-20th century Anglicization of pronunciation in New England, which Forster has cultivated so well in earlier works such as his reincarnation of Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe, his Bernsteinian dissection of "Hickory Dickory Dock" in The Proposition, and his devastating send-up of Prince Charles on his Helium album on Phil/Rounder Records.
Every production of Eleanor has seen the creation of at least one new song. Next time around one might ask for just a little more heft--perhaps a torch song? or a musicalization of Louis Howe's monologue?--in Act II. But as is, Act I is a knock-out, and the show as a whole sings and soars.
The CD is available from Valkill Productions, 315 Riverside Drive, Suite 16A, New York, NY 10025. Tel.: 212-222-3420. [Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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