Thursday, August 26, 2010

It Happened In the White House

CD Review

Written and performed by Lynn Ruehlmann. Music by Bob Zentz and Jeanne McDougall. Available for $15.00, plus $3.50 shipping and handling, from May also be ordered from or by calling Lynn at (757) 625-6742. Recommended for 4th grade through adult.

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

Lynn Ruehlmann is a traveling one-woman history show who uses her considerable writing and acting talent to not only bring historical characters to life, but to make them accessible and familiar to her listeners. On this entertaining and informative CD about Virginia presidents and their wives, she wisely chooses to portray characters who “either did know or could have known the president and his wife and all the facts in that tale.” This frees her to bring a bit of herself into the telling, as opposed to assuming the persona of a well-known figure about whom many may have already formed pre-conceived notions.

Dolly Madison’s story, for example, is told by a little girl who loves to watch Mrs. Madison feed her parrot. With the excitement that only a child would feel comfortable exposing, she relates the tale of how Mrs. Madison saved many of America’s valuable artifacts, including Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington, from the rapidly approaching British army during the War of 1812. Mrs. Madison, the child concludes, is a “national heroine who did not care for her own safety.”

George and Martha Washington’s love story is beautifully shared by Mrs. Chamberlayne, one of Martha’s friends from childhood. Mrs. Chamberlayne shares intimate scenes in the life of a couple that is as devoted to the American colonies and their people as it is to each other. When duty calls, the Washingtons answer, though somewhat reluctantly, and trust that their love for one another will see them through the battlefields and the politics.

Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy enlightens us about the details that led her father to write the Declaration of Independence. She also expounds on his role in sending Lewis and Clark on their expedition of the Louisiana Purchase.

John Tyler’s story is narrated by a singer on the Princeton, who fondly relates the courtship of Tyler and his second wife, Julia Gardner, thirty years Tyler’s junior. Tyler was the first president to be married while in office, and, though Julia was accustomed to getting what she wanted, the narrator makes it clear that he believes the marriage was a true love match.

A servant tells the story of Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, wife of President James Monroe. A shy woman who suffers from convulsions, Mrs. Monroe is compared unfavorably to Dolly Madison in local gossip. Indignant, the servant recounts the story of how a brave Mrs. Monroe saved Madame de Lafayette from the French guillotine. “That is the story the gossips should be telling!” the servant declares.

We are given insight into the lives of President and Mrs. Zachary Taylor by a Tourist who is drawn to the stuffed warhorse that the President has mounted on the White House lawn. Mrs. Taylor, the tourist confides, was never seen in public, except for church. She did not want the public chore of being hostess for the Presidency. President Taylor, it is said, did not even vote for himself because of his wife’s reluctance to take on the role of First Lady.

My favorite story on this CD is the story of President Woodrow Wilson, told by a woman who knew his second wife, Edith. Theirs was not the most romantic courtship, but they had great trust in and affection for one another. After reluctantly getting involved in World War I, Wilson went on to help write the Treaty of Versailles and to champion the League of nations. He died heartbroken that the United States rejected the League.

Featured on this recording are several pieces of period music, provided by Bob Zentz and Jeanne McDougall who play various instruments. These lovely musical interludes set the mood for each story.

Ruehlmann thoroughly researched these stories, and it shows. The stories are a wealth of information, and each narrating character is so unique that it is easy to forget that just one woman portrays them all.

Though it cannot be seen on this recording, Ruehlmann is blessed with a face that can create expressions that mirror the inner being of her characters, and the physical changes effected by this are quite remarkable. I can think of no better performer to be brought into a school system. Her shows are both entertaining and educational, and the lucky students who get to see her shows have fun, in addition to learning history.

The CD liner has photos of the Presidents and wives who are featured on this recording. It also contains some enlightening notes about the show. Seldom have I seen a more professionally produced package.

After hearing this CD, I feel proud to be a native of the state of Virginia, the mother of such fascinating presidents.

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