On a whim and a recommendation, I took myself to the Public Theatre’s production of First Daughter Suite, without any idea what I was walking into. As I’ve stated in other reviews/commentaries, this is one of my favorite scenarios for theatre going. To sit down, and wait for the unknown, without any preconceived notions of what I will see and be witness to. And what a pleasure this turned out to be.
First Daughter Suite written by the masterly hand of Michael John LaChiusa is a beautiful piece of musical theatre (extended to November 22nd). His music, lyrics, and story telling are sublime and reminded me, in moments, of melodic Sondheim writing at his least dense. At moments, I was reminded of Sunday in the Park with George; something in his phrasing and rhythm. Complicated yet simple in its emotional core, devilishly funny and serious. The four components center on Presidents in crisis (out of sight), and the mothers and daughters that must deal with these moments without really being involved. They are interesting hostages themselves, unelected yet famous, living in a grand house that is not a home, until they are released from scrutiny when their fathers leave office. Then, and only then, they are thrown back into their previous lives, forever changed but returning to the same, discarded and not needed by the public anymore.
The first scenario involves the Nixon family. The mother Pat, a wonderful Barbara Walsh (who I adored in Broadway’s revival of Company), the bride-to-be daughter Tricia (Betsy Morgan) and her younger already married sister, Julie (Caissie Levy) as they try to manage a rainy White House wedding. As this storm carries on, a disapproving ghost of the Quaker mother-in-law, Hannah Nixon (a perfect Theresa McCarthy) visits, criticizes, and wrangles with Pat over her son’s impending crisis and legacy. The ‘will it rain or will it not’ dilemma going on between the daughters and the mother, paralleled with some mysterious tension (involving some pesky reporters) occupying their father’s mind with shadows of a ghostly premonition turn this Suite into something divine and delicious. Much deeper and denser then I thought possible at the beginning. Betsy Morgan and Caissie Levy are exceptional as the bickering and loving stressed-out sisters. And they also get to shine in their other daughters of presidents roles still to come.
The second scenario is more abstract and a whole lot of fun. This is a fun dance filled dream sequence, Amy Carter’s (a feisty and fun Carly Tamer) to be exact, with her calm and adoring mother Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones) coupled with the ‘coolest first daughter ever’ Susan Ford (an amazing turn by Ms. Morgan) and the incredibly entertaining Alison Fraser as the always dancing and drinking Betty Ford. Fraser delivers such a wonderfully exciting delicious portrait of this most famous of first ladies, hilariously choreographed by Chase Brock. It’s a wonderful piece of fantasy rescue (both the Iranian hostages and their own futures) that left me smiling from ear to ear. And magically, it made me want to find out more about these daughters and what happened to them after they left the White House when both their fathers lost their reelection campaigns.
The third scenario, one of my favorites, is also about a crisis and (hopefully) a lot of fantasy ’supposing’ done by this musical’s creator. Reagan is in the middle of his Iran-Contra crisis back in DC, and mother Nancy (an impeccable Ms. Fraser again) has summoned her rebel daughter Patti Davis (a wonderful Ms. Levy) for a poolside visit, supported by the Paraguayan maid, Anita (an understated and delectable Isabel Santiago). This powerful moment is filled with so much emotional detail, so much so that I don’t want to give anything away and spoil the pleasure. And once again, these nuanced performances of these intense songs made me want to know more. These three scenarios all had that affect on me; a desire to understand more about the stories that are layered on these moments and the people that inhabited these lives.
The fourth felt a bit off to me. I found it a bit forced and less engaging. The crisis is George Junior’s troubled reelection campaign (not much of a crisis it turns out to be), and the focus is on Barbara Bush (a strong voiced stoic Mary Testa) in conversation with her dead daughter, Robin (Ms McCarthy balancing the old and the young lovingly), now aged from the 3 year old who died to a 53-year-old ghost, visiting on the anniversary of her death. Laura Bush (a beautifully layered performance by Ms. Jones) is attempting to get Barbara to come in and throw her Grand Dame support into her son’s campaign, something Barbara doesn’t want to do. It’s beautifully performed but it didn’t resonate with me in the same way as the others. It felt it very true to these characters, but a bit forced, bringing into play a daughter that had died 50 years prior in order for this scene to fit into the theatrical mold; like a project that needed one more scene to fill it out.
Ultimately, I found this to be a powerful study of the odd creation of famous first daughters and first ladies. I wish I had had the opportunity to see the prequel, First Lady Suite, back in 1993 (also directed by this production’s exacting director, Kirsten Sanderson) or the revival by the Transport Group Theatre Company back in 2004. I felt disadvantaged somewhat by being a Canadian who, I guess, never learned that much about these first daughters and their mothers. But this lovely production made me want to learn more, and find out what happened to these women, before and after they left Pennsylvania Avenue.