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First Daughter Suite

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Barbara Walsh with Betsy Morgan and Caissie Levy
Photo by Joan Marcus

A jumble of complex, tangled feelings floods First Daughter Suite, the new musical by Michael John LaChiusa at The Public Theater, but what you feel most is the burden. Of the moment. Of history. Of mistakes made. Of decisions pondered then abandoned, and of repercussions from them that wound still, regardless of their objective outcome. There is no question that the 14 women investigated in this stunningly intense look at the last 43 years of American history are trailblazers, warriors, and survivors of an inimitable breed that commands respect on par with that accorded the vaunted presidents they orbited.

What LaChiusa makes obvious along the way is that, their own achievements aside, these are still women who are overshadowed by the even more famous occupants of the Oval Office. Although no men appear onstage during the musical's two-and-a-half-hour running time, LaChiusa and director Kirsten Sanderson ensure that their presence is so keenly observed that, overall, they're more precisely articulated than the women who are constantly speaking and singing about and around them.

If the show doesn't always convince you that that's the best thing, it is unarguably another serious and magnetic musical of the type LaChiusa has made his career on. As its title may suggest, it's the heir apparent to First Lady Suite, which The Public premiered in 1993 (also with Sanderson directing), and which utilized many of the same ideas to probe the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart. First Daughter Suite also shares its forerunner's jagged, staggered construction and composition, which musicalizes the mechanics of thought and dialogue rather than represent them with glitzy theatricality that might obscure the characters' souls.

This makes each of the four nearly sung-through chapters the comprise the evening rigorously intelligent but potentially cold; this is not one of his more "popular-sounding" efforts, along the lines of The Wild Party, Hello Again, or See What I Wanna See. So it may appeal less to those who prefer easily digestible characterizations and dramaturgy, or contemporary recasting, of the sort so often perceived (not always without reason) as part and parcel of today's biggest hits, including The Public's own recent Broadway success, Hamilton.


Caissie Levy and Alison Fraser
Photo by Joan Marcus

But LaChiusa has done much to make his subjects more accessible by making their circumstances more intimate. Hence, the first scene depicts the Nixons, particularly Pat (Barbara Walsh), as filtered not primarily through a scandal but rather the rivalry consuming daughters Julie (Caissie Levy) and Tricia (Betsy Morgan) on the latter's wedding day. Then, two presidencies are reflected through the preadolescent whimsy of Amy Carter (a spirited Carly Tamer), who imagines a fanciful, portentous boat ride that involves her mom, Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones), as well as Betty and Susan Ford (Alison Fraser and Morgan again).

Nancy Reagan (Fraser) later attempts to reconcile with her estranged daughter, Patti (Levy), while lounging by a pool at Betsy Bloomingdale's California home in the mid 1980s. Finally, Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) locks herself within shattering memories as she muses on the limitations of her "mediocre" son, much to the chagrin of her boy's wife, Laura (Jones).

Each section has a distinct language and sound, with the propriety-minded conservative strains and clipped poetry of the Nixons giving way to late-70s liquidy pep for the Carters and Fords, then punk-infused anger burbling up for Patti (Nancy barely sings), and finally a haunting chamber opera for the tormented Bushes. (The splendid, emphatic orchestrations are by Michael Starobin and Bruce Coughlin; musical director Or Matias smoothly leads the six-piece band.) This strategy drives home, quite forcefully, the passage of change and the social progress of the United States and the evolving roles of those who are caught up in it.

More significant is what the chapters have in common. They're unified by some looming calamity, such as Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, or the Iran-Contra affair, and the alternately destructive and revivifying properties of water. Sanderson has crafted the overwhelming sense of danger forever lurking just beyond the vision, ready to sweep everyone off the map of human consciousness. (Scott Pask's glass-floored set, revealing waves captured below, reinforces this, as do Tyler Micoleau's lights; Toni-Leslie James's costumes almost look like armor designed to hold off the onslaught.) Each of them is struggling, in some way, to avoid being forgotten or discarded by those they most need—a battle none looks destined to win.


Theresa McCarthy, Mary Testa, and Rachel Bay Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

Despite the concept's precise, elegant execution, it can also be frustrating. LaChiusa can thrill with offhand references to critical events, such as Nixon's closed-door meetings, or lyrics that cover vast terrain in mere seconds. ("Why should it have to change?", Barbara sings at one point. "There's nothing I have to fix / Or need to rearrange / My husband likes it just like that: / My mind the way it is. / For when his mind is full of / Horrible thoughts, / He always knows / My beautiful mind / Is his.") But the First Ladies and Daughters—predominately in the uneasily comedic "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure," but really throughout—are nowhere near as vivid.

It's an ambitious form of storytelling, defining so many unseen people so thoroughly through other voices, but not always an effective one; it makes the women seem flimsier and less important than either the musical or reality likely intended. Sanderson embraces it rigorously, so you don't doubt it's the intent. But, because of the lack of stronger personalities, it never seems quite as cohesive as First Lady Suite did at its best.

Even so, the cast meets LaChiusa's usual stratospheric standards. Walsh finds a fierce fear beneath Pat's placid fa├žade, and as her daughters Levy and Morgan cannily balance stereotypical female concerns with the unfortunately individual fate they somehow know awaits them. Fraser makes a coolly calculating Nancy opposite Levy's combative but smart Patti, and has some ditzy fun with the booze-loving Betty. Theresa McCarthy is excellent as an old woman and a tiny girl who drive two presidents in unsuspecting ways, and Isabel Santiago brings an appealing fire to Anita Castelo, Nancy's assistant who knows (and contributes) more than she'll ever let on.

It's the last scene, however, "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried," that brings out the most in the performers, Sanderson, and LaChiusa. Even considering what precedes it, this one skirts convention and takes substantial risks in painting a portrait in a way that not everyone will accept or trust; though I found it arresting, even I'll admit that what it does and how it goes about it stretches the premise nearly to the breaking point. (Yes, I'm being circumspect, because the development of the idea is at least as important than the idea itself.) But it contains, in its ethereal, disjointed arias and lyrical arguments, some of LaChiusa's most sensitive and emotionally perceptive work to date, chronicling how two women ponder the roles they've played in making a man less great than they believe he deserved to be.

Jones is remarkable as Laura: gentle and accepting, but also firm and not endlessly patient—she lets you see both fronts of the war that's waging inside her as she tries to be what she needs of herself while meeting everyone else's expectations. And though Mary Testa brokers no shortage of comedic moments as Barbara, she invests the role with a despondent, dead-eyed terror as acute as anything she did in her lead role in LaChiusa's Queen of the Mist four years ago. She lets you witness how resolve dissolves when the assumptions and prejudices on which she's built her entire life turn out to be something very different than she initially imagined.

Such is the overarching message, which is devoted to showing us exactly what those misconceptions mean and how they've changed the course of America. Could the motives and methods throughout be clearer, and draw even starker attention to these worthy figures? Perhaps. But what's here is so fascinating, and in the case of "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried" so powerful, that LaChiusa persuades you to overlook it. If these women don't receive their full due, it's only because their world wasn't configured to allow it. First Daughter Suite can't correct every wrong, but it can and does prove these women have earned this tribute—and a great deal more.


First Daughter Suite
Through November 15
The Public Theater's Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: publictheater.org


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