A loyal team of regulars from the musicals of Michael John LaChiusa banded together Feb. 1 for a grand edition of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series. Heartbreak Country: Michael John LaChiusa's Stories of America presented 19 musical numbers in an evening filled with emotional peaks.
Of LaChiusa's 10 New York musicals, eight were represented, with many recreated original cast moments. With LaChiusa one expects strong singers, and each of the group had multiple chances to shine. Music was under the direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who led an adept five-piece combo in effective (but non-credited) arrangements. The evening was conceived and directed by Jack Cummings III, the artistic director of the Transport Group Theatre Company, which has staged excellent productions of three LaChiusa musicals.
The evening began with selections from First Lady Suite, LaChiusa's 1993 fantasia about Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy. Kate Baldwin established the tone of LaChiusa's incisive material with "The Smallest Thing," which describes the latter First Lady's impressions on that fatal morning in Dallas. This was followed by the 1994 Hello, Again, with Marc Kudisch taking command as the cinema auteur in the "Safe"/"The One I Love" scene, with an enjoyable assist from Bryce Ryness as "Jackie the angel." Emily Skinner then stole the stage with "Mistress of the Senator."
Next came selections from the two 1999-2000 musicals with which LaChiusa stormed an unappreciative Broadway. Sherry D. Boone, who alternated with Audra McDonald in the original production of Marie Christine, offered "Way Back to Paradise" (with Baldwin) and "I Will Give." Her performance of the latter was so powerful that it appeared as if the very-pregnant Boone might deliver sooner than anticipated. Then came two smashing numbers from The Wild Party, with Kudisch — who made a splash in a featured role in the show — undertaking Mandy Patinkin's breakdown-song "How Many Women in the World." Skinner followed with a masterful job on Eartha Kitt's eleven o'clock number, "When It Ends." Two numbers from Little Fish were less effective, as were selections from See What I Wanna See (including songs from original cast members Kudisch and Mary Testa). The evening ended with LaChiusa's two most recent musicals. Testa, who gave an exceptional performance as Annie Edson Taylor — the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive — in Queen of the Mist, reprised her opening number, "There is Greatness in Me." Andrew Samonsky, who costarred as her manager, offered the first act closer "On the Other Side." Finally came two stunning showstoppers from last season's monumental Giant. Baldwin recreated her magical performance with "Your Texas" (assisted by Samonsky), after which the pair sang the soaring "Heartbreak Country."
All told, it was a rewarding evening for fans of the distinctive composer/lyricist/librettist LaChiusa, who seemed highly pleased when he joined the cast for their final bow.