First Daughter Suite
Michael John LaChiusa’s eclectic new musical portrays six First Ladies and their daughters in his follow-up to his 1993 “First Lady Suite.”
While First Lady Suite was told in reverse order, First Daughter Suite is played chronologically starting in 1972 and ending in 2005. In both evenings all four musicals are thematically linked: First Lady Suite’s musicals dealt in some way with air as three of the four stories took place on the Presidential plane; the follow-up is linked by water (rain, an ocean voyage, a pool, and a cold afternoon by the Atlantic.) Scott Pask’s scenic design for the four musicals has all four sets seemingly floating on what appears to be a glass sea or pool. The First Ladies in this new musical also share the belief that the White House is a “house that will never be a home.” Although the mothers and daughters are seen in their private lives, they can never forget that the spotlight is always on them.
Subtitled “a Historical Fantasia in Four Parts,” First Daughter Suite begins with a prologue in which all nine actresses sing about what they most wish for – which turns out to be the soothing waters of childhood. “Happy Pat,” the first of the four chamber musicals, is the only one that takes place in the White House and is the most operatic. Set in the East Sitting Room on June 11, 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon, who is trying to stay calm, is beset with her daughters’ problems: it is the afternoon of Tricia Nixon’s wedding to take place on the White House lawn and the weather is not cooperating. While sister Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the younger daughter but married first, and Tricia argue, Pat who is trying to stay above it all sees the ghost of her late Quaker mother-in-law Hannah. The musical ends when a decision is finally made as to where the wedding will be held.
Although Barbara Walsh makes a fine, distant Pat Nixon, she isn’t given much to do. The largest role goes to Caissie Levy as the efficient Julie, who is trying to save the day. Betsy Morgan comes across as immature and whiney as the bride who thinks her wedding is ruined. Theresa McCarthy is amusing as the disapproving Hannah who foresees the future for her son Richard. The tone is light, and although President Nixon’s problems are mentioned, this plays as a comedy.
This is followed by “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure” in which jazz seems to be the dominant musical style. Set on the deck of the Presidential Yacht in the spring of 1980, we are in the mind of 12-year-old Amy (a rather underwhelming Carly Tamer) as she imagines that she is floating up and down the Potomac with her mother First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady Betty Ford, and her daughter 23-year-old Susan whom Amy envies for being the “coolest” first daughter having had her high school prom at the White House.
While Betty drinks and dances (a delightfully wacky Alison Fraser), a bored Susan (a chameleon-like Morgan in a second role) suggests that they sail to Iran and save the Hostages which will ensure Amy’s father’s reelection. Rosalyn (played by a retiring and restrained Rachel Bay Jones) continues to tell Amy what she cannot do. Not only do they reach Iran, but various magical events take place. When they find themselves back in the United States, Susan reminds Amy that “You’ll never be normal,/ You’re the child of a president.” While this is an amusing fantasy, it seems the weakest of the four.
The second half of the evening packs quite a wallop. “Patti by the Pool” takes place at Holmsby Hills, California, home of the Reagans’ close friend Betsy Bloomingdale in November 1986. After a silence of six months, First Lady Nancy Reagan has invited her daughter Patti Davis to spend the day with her in Los Angeles by the pool of one of her closest friends. The angry and sarcastic Patti (played by a tempestuous Levy) attacks a cool, unflappable Nancy Reagan (a memorable Fraser) in pop song style while her mother with eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses responds in succinct, spoken dialogue. Patti knows her mother wants something from her but is not forthcoming about what it is. This two-character confrontation depicts Mrs. Reagan as a manipulating, controlling dragon while Patti is seen as an astute though troubled observer. Making periodic appearances, Anita Castelo (a fine Isabel Santiago) as Nancy’s Paraguayan maid helps her mistress with her intended agenda. The ultimately devastating “Patti by the Pool” is the most successful of the four musicals.
The final musical, “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried,” set at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Oct. 11, 2005 has the most conventional Broadway sound of the evening. Long time LaChiusa interpreter Mary Testa (See What I Wanna See, Marie Christine, and The Queen of the Mist, a musical written for her) gives a commanding performance as Barbara Bush sitting by the Atlantic Ocean and mourning the loss of her daughter Robin (a childlike McCarthy), visible only to her, on the 50th anniversary of her passing. Unfortunately, as daughter-in-law Laura Bush (an understated but impressive Bay Jones) keeps coming out of the house to remind her, she has responsibilities to her son’s reelection campaign. Aside from the thorny relationship with her daughter-in-law, Barbara Bush muses on her disappointments with her sons and the sacrifices she has made along the way that has gotten her the nickname “the Granite Granny.” Ultimately, both Barbara and Laura describe the effect on the family of the day Robin died.
Under the polished direction of Kirsten Sandersan, First Daughter Suite is an excellent follow-up to La Chiusa’s earlier First Lady Suite, though quite different in style and content. While here the focus is on the private toll on the First Ladies and the First Daughters, the new musical appears to be more of a fictionalized depiction of lives lived in public. What is most extraordinary about the new musical is the juicy roles it gives such veteran musical theater actresses as Alison Fraser and Mary Testa, adding new feathers to their caps. All the ladies are immeasurably aided by costume designer Toni-Leslie James and wig and hair designer Robert-Charles Vallance to look like their counterparts. Ironically, although the title focuses on the daughters, it is the mothers who have the best roles.
First Daughter Suite (extended through November 22, 2015)
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission
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