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THE FIRST LADY Elevating contemporary historical figures to the mythic heights of classical opera invariably risks inviting the mock-heroic. For composer Ken Wells' new chamber opera, which depicts the behind-the-scenes political and emotional fallout from the death and marital infidelity of FDR (libretto by Wells, Richard Roudebush, Gayle Patterson & Matt B. Wells), the dramatic challenge was clearly to bar mockery and its first cousin, melodrama, from the party. Wells successfully meets that challenge with dignity ... perhaps too successfully. Director Courtney Selan's production is a monument to dignified stateliness. For a libretto that paints Eleanor Roosevelt (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Wallace) as cold, emotionally withdrawn and domineering, Selan's declamatory, presentational staging can feel like a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd (soprano Hannah Waldman), FDR's mistress and the object of Eleanor's ire, comes off no less chiseled in marble, especially following a romantic duet with the president (baritone Eric Carampatan), when she impassively stands upstage, as the love of her life suffers his fatal stroke. In fact, Wells reserves his most moving aria for the character that is the piece's true dramatic heart — Anna Roosevelt Boettiger (soprano Rebecca Sjowall in an outstanding performance). Considering that it is Anna who, out of loyalty to her father, invites Lucy to Warm Springs, knowing she is also betraying her mother, and that the bulk of the opera concerns her attempts to win Eleanor's forgiveness, the work might be more accurately called The First Daughter. Still, Wells' score (ably conducted by Stephen Karr), a postminimalist mix of Romanticism and themes culled from Broadway show tunes, Episcopalian hymns and negro spirituals, delivers more than its share of effective moments. Designer Adam Rigg's white sunroom set and beige-and-tan costumes frame the proceedings with the nostalgic appeal of a sepia photo. NPI Auditorium, UCLA, 720 Westwood Blvd., L.A.; Fri., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.; Wed., March 3, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., March 7, 2 p.m. (310) 794-3711. (Bill Raden)
SLAUGHTER CITY There's a lot of anger onstage in poet-playwright Naomi Wallace's 1995 agitprop. Certainly the union meatpackers who work in the play's foul sausage factory — Sarah Krainin's viscera-strewn, blood-spattered set looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the publication of The Jungle — are bitter, mainly at the dithering plant manager, Baquin (Bart Petty), with whom they're deadlocked in stalled contract negotiations. And black floor supervisor Tuck (Brent Jennings) is no less happy with the condescending indignities heaped on him by a racist, white management. Not all the grievances are job-related. Veteran gutter Roach (Christina Ogunade) has rage and intimacy issues stemming from a childhood molestation. And her illiterate, would-be suitor, Brandon (Christopher Emerson), still bears the raw, psychic scars from an extreme act of employer violence dating from his youth. Throw in anti-Semitism, homophobia and gender discrimination, add several musical numbers (courtesy of composer Andrew Ingkavet) and a dose of comic relief, and you'd have enough plot material for 10 such shows. But Wallace then adds the parallel storyline of the otherworldly, ambisexual scab, Cod (Noelle Messier), his/her love for Roach's gal pal, Maggot (Sarah Boughton), and hate for the mysterious, Mephistophelian Sausage Man (Alexander Wells), and the play's message — along with its indignation — all but disappears in the resulting fog of metaphors. Director Barbara Kallir and a talented ensemble's efforts to bring clarity to the chaos are only occasionally rewarded. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through March 15. (Bill Raden)
GO THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES Richtly textured performances by Frances Conroy and Martin Sheen provide the best reason to see Neil Pepe's meticulous staging of Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 chestnut. The story concerns an only son (Brian Geraghty), home from the Army after World War II. He's now a little more grown-up and able to recognize the fractures of his parents' marriage. The play, and the production, are beautifully understated, and if the climactic scene is less cathartic than it might have been in 1964, that's no reason to stay away. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 21. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.