Thursday, October 29, 2015

92. Review: THE HUMMINGBIRD'S TOUR (seen October 26, 2015)

"Heaven Can Wait"

What would you do if someone said they could tell you the day you were going to die? Would you want to know or would you do what you could to avoid knowing? This question is one of those at the heart of Margaret Dulaney's THE HUMMINGBIRD’S TOUR, a whimsical family comedy about death, with a theological subtext and a dash of magic realism. Unfortunately, this makes it sound a bit better than it is.
From left: Anne O'Sullivan, Ray Baker, Susan Pellegreino, Lynda Gravátt. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
Norton (Ray Baker), a widowed, professorial sexagenarian, lives in a Northern California home with Mattie (Susan Pellegrino), his spinster younger sister, also in her 60s, and Constance (Lynda Gravátt), a grumpy, philosophical black domestic in her 80s. Constance has been with the family for much of her long life, barely does any housework despite still drawing a salary, and is more like Norton and Mattie’s nanny than their servant.
Lynda Gravátt, Anne O'Sullivan, Susan Pellegrino. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
Although the words agnostic and atheist are never spoken, Norton, who spends most of his time perched reading atop a ladder in his bookshelf-lined library/living room, is a skeptic about religion, although he ultimately reveals his Achilles heel when it comes to the possibility of reuniting after death with his late, beloved wife. On the other hand, Mattie, who fears unhappy endings, seems much firmer in her faith, being a churchgoing Episcopalian preoccupied about where she’s headed after she passes. Hoping to bring happiness to the residents of a nursing home on Easter Sunday, she’s created a silly-looking, pink bunny outfit, with big ears, in which she spends a good deal of stage time.
Anne O'Sullivan, Susan Pellegrino, Ray Baker. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
Arriving for a visit is Norton and Mattie’s several-times-married older sister, Lucy (Anne O’Sullivan), whose search for spiritual enlightenment has led her to stay at a nearby ashram. Norton refers to Lucy’s serial religious encounters as her “hummingbird’s tour of theology,” since hummingbirds remain in one place for only 15 seconds. She’s brought along Peter, her young spiritual advisor, who remains offstage in the adjoining kitchen, and who looks different to everyone who describes him. Each time someone enters from the kitchen after talking to Peter, a strange light glows in the doorway, an unearthly sound is heard, and the entrant’s face has a look of supreme goofiness. Peter, Lucy tells Norton and Mattie, has the power to look at someone and predict when they’re going to die. Since an earlier bit of dialogue notes that the Pearly Gates are manned by St. Peter, it’s possible this is the very guy. (I’m not saying.)
Anne O'Sullivan, Ray Baker, Susan Pellegrino. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
What plot there is—and there isn’t much—concerns Constance, who doesn’t know what Peter means when he tells her, “April 14, 1 p.m.” April 1 also happens to be the upcoming Easter Sunday. The siblings choose not to tell Constance that, if Peter’s right, this is when she’ll die. Further, four envelopes are left by Peter, one for each character; this provides a touch of tension when the siblings consider whether they want to open them. As they wait to learn Constance’s fate, they chat about death, predestination, faith, belief, miracles, religious diversity, Heaven, the need to live life while you have it, how to prepare for death, the power of love, and other potentially heavy topics, although always in a lighthearted, casual way.
Anne O'Sullivan, Susan Pellegrino. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
Sheryl Liu’s homey set, nicely lit by Christopher Weston, makes you want to pick a book off the shelves and make yourself comfortable. The actors, briskly directed by John Augustin, and suitably attired by Christopher Leidenfront (there’s also a credit for “Original Costume Design” by Brian Strachan), are mildly appealing but more workmanlike than wonderful. Most distinctive is Ms. Gravátt as the ornery old Constance, wielding her cane as a potential threat to those who step out of line, but her use of a very heavy dialect often obscures her lines.
Sussan Pellegrino, Lynda Gravátt. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
THE HUMMINGBIRD’S TOUR, previously seen at the Bucks County Playhouse, has enough thoughtful substance to engage those with a bent toward this kind of material; its repartee—despite the potentially ponderous subject matter—is blithe enough to generate gentle laughter, and its schmaltzy conclusion, far-fetched though it is, may stir some emotions. But, after two hours, its lack of action, dependence on often fuzzy theological chit-chat, and uncomfortable mix of the real and the unreal, may not make you feel particularly enlightened.
Susan Pellegrino, Anne O'Sullivan, Ray Baker, Lynda Gravátt. Photo: C.D. Wilson.
Theatre is Easy
Stage Buddy

Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West Forty-Sixth Street, NYC
Through November 22

91. Review: SONGBIRD (seen October 25, 2015)

Masha, Nina, Trigorin, and Tammy
Stars range from 5-1.

If Shakespeare’s the classic dramatist whose plays get revised, rewritten, and regurgitated more than any other, it would seem that the modern dramatist who gets the same reaction is Anton Chekhov. I’m not sure when the trend began, but maybe it was Josh Logan’s THE WISTERIA TREES, a 1950 Broadway play that moved THE CHERRY ORCHARD to a Louisiana plantation in the late 19th century. The stream of similar redactions has grown stronger in recent years; in 2013 Christopher Durang’s UNCLE VANYA mashup, MASHA, VANYA, SONIA, AND SPIKE, even won a Tony.
Kate Baldwin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, Kate Baldwin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The Chekhov masterpiece that seems the richest source to plunder, however, is THE SEAGULL, first performed in 1896, which has not only been given countless revivals in the context of its original Russian setting, but has fostered numerous radical adaptations, including one by Thomas Kilroy that moved the setting to West Ireland; a ballet version that turned the main characters into ballet dancers; a movie set against the world of French cinema; an African-American interpretation; another version placed in the Hamptons; one set on an Australian beach; a modern dress version taking place on a Canadian estate; and, perhaps the best received of them all, a comic deconstruction called STUPID FUCKING BIRD.

So it should be no surprise that Michael Kimmel’s play, SONGBIRD, with 17 songs--many of them quite fine--by Lauren Pritchard, takes place in Nashville, the capital of country western music, where the fading actress, Mme. Arkadina, has been transformed into a fading but still colorfully brash country western star, Tammy Trip (Kate Baldwin, looking hot and sounding great); the novelist Trigorin into Beck (Eric William Morris), Tammy’s rather younger songwriter-paramour; Arkadina’s sensitive son, Konstantine, into Dean (Adam Cochran), a would-be singer-songwriter; Nina, Konstantine’s fragile young sweetheart, into Mia (Ephie Aardema), an aspiring singer-guitarist who falls for Beck; Sorin, Arkadina’s ailing brother, into Soren (Bob Stillman), proprietor of the shabby Nashville bar/music venue where the play transpires; Polina, Arkadina’s friend, into Pauline (Erin Dilly), a blonde floozy; Masha ("I'm in mourning for my life"), Polina’s daughter, into Missy (Kacie Sheik), a wannabe singer dressed in black, who bartends and sings the excellent "Cry Me a River"; Doctor Dorn into Doc (Drew McVety), a physician/violinist having a torrid affair with Polina; Medvedenko, the teacher, into the black barback, Rip (Bob Guillory), pining for Missy; and Ilya, Polina’s husband, into Samuel (Andy Taylor), who manages the bar with his wife. In one way or another, everyone in SONGBIRD is a twangy-accented actor-singer-musician, and they're all damned good.
Erin Dilly. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
From left: Kacie Sheik, Erin Dilly, Don Guillory, Bob Stillman, Kate Baldwin, Eric William Morris, Ephie Aardema, Drew McVety. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
The single set represents Soren's honky tonk saloon, where whiskey is the lingua franca; it also serves in the prologue as the Grand Ole Opry, where Tammy, in a flashback, is shown making a big impression in her debut performance singing “Small Town Heart” (one of the show’s best numbers). Jason Sherwood’s design, beautifully lit by Aaron Porter, fills the Theater A stage at 59E59 Theaters with an impressive structure of deteriorating wooden-slatted siding, but the walls contain so many worn-through holes and broken slats, one wonders what it feels like when the wind blows through, or why the city hasn’t closed the place down as a potential hazard. 

Although it removes some minor characters, reducing the cast list to ten, and trims the material to a two-hour and 15-minute running time, SONGBIRD follows much the same plot trajectory as Chekhov’s original. The symbolic bird suggested by Chekhov’s title is no longer a seagull, but a bluebird. Instead of Konstantine’s avant-garde play, we get the offbeat "Wandering," sung by Dean and Mia, which Tammy, having made a special visit to her old haunts in order to support her son’s new song, can’t help rudely interrupting.
Eric William Morris, Ephie Aardema. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Kate Baldwin, Eric William Morris. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Like so much else in this production, directed by JV Mercanti, her behavior is as subtle as a brass band. Chekhov’s delicate interplay among characters and his reliance on subtextual psychological themes become soap opera theatrics and sudden, superficial, emotional blowups that emerge without sufficient justification. Also missing is a clear sense of Chekhov’s chain of unrequited love, with each character longing for someone who doesn’t return the feeling.  Covering up the lack of believable transitions and interplay are Ms. Pritchard’s sprightly and even moving songs, mostly C&W but also including blues and rock; the songs, however, are mostly stand-alone and don't help further the plot, as in more conventional musicals. But they're probably the strongest reason for visiting SONGBIRD.

Of course, one unavoidable side effect of adapting a well-known play by updating and setting it in an unusual environment is that some audience members will be preoccupied with matching the newly named characters to their originals, and guessing at how various incidents will play out. When Dean, for example, walks off at the end of act one very conspicuously carrying a noose, you wonder how he’ll manage to survive for act two. Seeing him enter later with a bandage around his neck, instead of his head a la Konstantine, only draws attention to the playwright's less than perfect choice. Since no gun appears in the play, you can’t help but think about how Mr. Kimmel will finish the young man off at the end; I won’t spoil it but it’s equally disappointing. But, hey, don’t feel blue. Two seconds after the show closes on that inevitable downer, the lights come up and the entire cast—Dean included—assemble for a rousing ensemble number. Excuse me?
Adam Cochran, Ephie Aardema. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Kate Baldwin dominates, both by her presence and her singing, but the super-trim, 40-year-old actress looks much younger than the 44-year-old character she’s playing (especially in her skin-tight duds, excellently designed by Mark Koss); she could probably get away with playing Nina. This choice deprives the play of the poignancy of a beautiful star whose looks are beginning to fade, possibly affecting her lover’s openness to the attraction of the fresh-faced Mia. Similarly, Beck is described as being too young for Tammy, but Mr. Morris, a handsome, dark-haired actor, doesn't look any younger than Ms. Baldwin. Closing the age gap between Beck/Trigorin and Mia/Nina has its virtues but it diminishes the poignancy in Chekhov's June-October affair. (One could also question the lack of a distinct age difference between Ms. Dilly's flashy Pauline and Ms. Sheik's Missy, but I do hear that people marry young down South.)
Kate Baldwin, Bob Stillman. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
A play as familiar as THE SEAGULL is always worth a new approach, especially as its characters seem universal enough to transition to unexpected environments. Hopefully, the shift will enlighten us regarding themes and relationships encountered in more traditional presentations. When it doesn’t, it only serves as a reminder that, while you can take Chekhov out of Russia, you can’t always take Russia out of Chekhov.  
Erin Dilly, Kate Baldwin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.


59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through November 29

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

90. Review: DAMES AT SEA (seen October 27, 2015)

"Tapping Days Are Here Again"
Stars range from 5-1.

 For some reason, I let DAMES AT SEA sail past me during my theatergoing salad days, although it had moved on from its 1966 Off-Off Broadway origins as a cabaret sketch at the tiny Caffe Cino titled DAMES AT SEA, OR GOLDDIGGERS AFLOAT to a successful Off-Broadway run at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in 1968 before transferring to the Theatre de Lys. Had I gone, of course, I’d have seen the young Bernadette Peters (18 in 1966) in her breakthrough role of Ruby, the naïve tap-dancing dynamo from Centerville, Utah, who goes out there as a chorus girl and comes back a Broadway star on her very first day in New York. Although DAMES AT SEA was subsequently given many productions around the country, including a well-received revival at New York’s Lamb’s Club in 1985, its current incarnation at the Helen Hayes Theatre is its first on Broadway.

From left: Danny Gardner, Mara Davi, John Bolton, Eloise Kropp, Cary Tedder, Lesli Margherita. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. 
The Helen Hayes, Broadway’s most intimate venue, is the perfect spot for this six-actor spoof—sort of a mashup of FOLLOW THE FLEET, ANYTHING GOES, HIT THE DECK, and 42ND STREET—of early 1930s gobs, gals, and show biz movies (the kind that Busby Berkeley made for Warner Brothers), with leading roles assigned to Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as the young lovers, and Joan Blondell as the wisecracking, gum-chewing dame who befriends her. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner has given the show just the right amount of Broadway gloss, and the verve and vitality of his perfectly cast ensemble make it easy to overlook some of the show’s innate weaknesses, such as its forced humor and spirited but uneven score.
Mara Davi, Danny Gardner. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Following opening credits that mimic the beginning of a black and white Vitaphone film, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s book places us backstage at a rehearsal for a new Broadway musical set to open that night; it stars the man-eating diva Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita) and is directed and produced by the harried Hennesey (John Bolton). Within minutes of wandering in from the street, Ruby (Eloise Kropp), just arrived on the bus from Centerville, falls in love Dick (Cary Tedder), a young sailor-songwriter, from the same home town, and is hired to replace one of the chorus girls. Mona, who likes Dick’s music, casts her sexy spell on him. Meanwhile, Dick’s sailor sidekick, Lucky (Danny Gardner), resumes his suspended romance with Joan (Mara Davi).
From left: John Bolton, Danny Gardner, Mara Davi, Cary Tedder, Eloise Kropp. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
It turns out, however, that the theatre’s about to be demolished (watch out for that wrecking ball!), so the seamen persuade their captain (Mr. Bolton), last name Courageous (did I say that the humor was labored?)—one of Mona’s still flickering old flames—to let them do the show aboard his battleship. Ruby, misinterpreting a kiss between Dick and Mona, thinks she’s lost him, but, when Mona’s seasickness prevents her from going on, Ruby replaces her and stardom beckons. She and Dick reunite and the finale (“Let’s Have a Simple Wedding”) celebrates everybody’s weddings.
Eloise Kropp, Cary Tedder. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
DAMES AT SEA is the kind of show business parody that allows the actors to play with unbridled exaggeration; still, while they practically wink about what they’re doing, they remain sufficiently grounded so you can relate to them as they carry out the silly dictates of the plot. Yes, some of the show gets a bit too campy, especially in the performances of Ms. Margherita and Mr. Bolton (who keeps shuffling between roles in act two), and most of the songs remain serviceable, although always listenable, reflections of those that inspired them. But smooth staging, a multitalented cast, and terrific tap dancing (especially by the supercharged Ms. Kropp whose feet are faster than a jackhammer) go a long way in keeping these gobs and dames afloat for two hours. Ms. Kropp is a knockout tap dancer, but her voice, strong as it is, lacks the unique timbre of Ms. Peters’s; Ms. Margherita, despite her comedic excesses, amusingly captures Mona’s vanity; the limber, long-legged Mr. Bolton, for all his mugging, demonstrates his usual versatility; and both Mr. Tedder and Mr. Gardner are attractive multi-threat performers, who make tap dancing look easy.
John Bolton, Cary Tedder, Eloise Kropp, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Jim Wise’s retro score mixes direct pastiches of standards by Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harry Warren, Al Dubin, and the like. You thus have “Wall Street,” a takeoff of “We’re in the Money”; “That Mister Man of Mine,” which satirizes“The Man I Love”; and “The Beguine,” which does the same for “Begin the Beguine”; the show's other numbers are reminiscent of the period style (although the orchestrations for the orchestra of eight—the original had three—don't replicate the sounds of 1930s show music). They’re sung and danced by a multitalented company that can both belt the lyrics and tap the hell out of the tunes. Standout dance routines include “Echo Waltz,” done by the women as yodeling Swiss girls and using black light effects, and “Raining in My Heart,” staged with colorful umbrellas.
Unlike the 1968 production, which Martin Gottfried called “chintzy,” ripping the producers for being “too cheap or careless to provide well-painted scenery, press the costumes, or even replace torn stockings,” this revival is smartly designed, with expert lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz, and scenery by Anna Louizos that displays a solid-looking backstage for act one, and a substantial (if stagey) ship’s deck for act two. Unlike what Gottfried saw, David C. Woolard’s costumes are both well-made and well pressed. Nothing chintzy here.
DAMES AT SEA is throwback theatre at a time when shows like FUN HOME and HAMILTON are redefining the Broadway musical; it’s got nothing on its mind other than enjoying itself at the expense of a harmless cultural shibboleth. It breaks no new ground, its score is enjoyable but not for the ages, its perpetual tap dancing can seem a bit much, and it may sometimes be too cute for its own good. But, to quote a better-known musical, if you let it entertain you, you’ll have a real good time.


Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West Forty-Fourth Street, NYC
Open run

Sunday, October 25, 2015

89. Review: FUTURITY (seen October 24, 2015)

 "Back from the Future"
Stars range from 5-1.

Early on in FUTURITY, César Alvarez’s hugely imaginative, sometimes charming, but just as often frustrating sci-fi, steampunk musical, a coproduction of Off-Broadway's Soho Rep and Ars Nova, the audience is told “Do not attempt to learn about history from this musical.” It’s true that the specific facts in the show aren’t historically accurate, but it’s also true that there is something to learn about history here, especially if you didn’t know that a woman named Ada Lovelace, whose father was Lord Byron, was a mathematical genius who had something to do with the ideas that led to the creation of the first computers; in fact, like me, you might not even have known that computers were being invented in the decades before the Civil War.
César Alvarez, Sammy Tunis. Photo: Ben Arons.
Lovelace, who died at 37 in 1852, 12 years before the imaginary events depicted in FUTURITY, has been treated in theatre and film before, but from a less overtly anachronistic point of view. Alvarez treats her much more fancifully as a sort of metaphorical figure who engages in an epistolary collaboration with an imaginary Civil War soldier, a would-be inventor named Julian Munro, sent to fight for the Union in Virginia; his company’s immediate mission is to destroy a rail line bringing food and supplies to the rebels.Munro and Lovelace seek to create a computer-like machine, the Steam Brain, for which they’ll provide an artificial intelligence that will somehow put an end to war. (The actual computer prototype her ideas may have contributed to was called the Analytical Engine, developed by Charles Babbage.) The optimistic view of technology’s promise held by the play’s 19th-century characters, of course, has been cruelly crushed by the realities of 20th-century warfare.
César Alvarez. Photo: Ben Arons.
Alvarez wrote the book and lyrics for FUTURITY; he shares the credit for the music with his band, The Lisps, who perform the piece, with him in the lead and Sammy Tunis (outstanding) as Ada. She wears an odd, balloon-shaped skirt and tight black blouse, her blonde hair tied back tightly and capped with a weird whorl of a topknot. Each ensemble member both sings and plays an instrument, the latter serving also as weapons carried by the soldiers portrayed. If you’ve seen the stagings of John Doyle, you’ll recognize this actor-musician tactic, although FUTURITY’s director is Sarah Benson, Soho Rep’s unflaggingly inventive artistic director. An earlier version, also staged by Ms. Benson, premiered at the American Repertory Company in Cambridge, MA, in 2012. The show has since been considerably revised.
César Alvarez and company. Photo: Ben Arons.
FUTURITY has a concert-like ambience, with the leads speaking and singing into standing mics much of the time, and the action almost always directed by the players not at one another but at the audience in a self-consciously performative manner. At a few moments, the leads, as themselves, chat casually with each other and us, seemingly improvising. Most of the soldiers are dressed by costume designer Emily Orling in 20th-century bluish-green military uniforms and helmets, while the General (Karen Kandel) wears a Civil War uniform, including a broad-brimmed hat. There’s a good deal of precision military-like movement, choreographed by David Neumann, excellently executed by the company at large. One of the dramatic highlights comes when the General leads the troops into battle and they seem about to charge from the stage into the auditorium just before the lights black out.
FUTURITY company. Photo: Ben Arons.
Much of the music has a bluegrass, folk-rock ambience (Julian plays guitar), and the tunes often reflect the feel of 19th-century folk songs: “Cumberland Pass” and “On the Banks of the Arkansas” are exemplars. While the score generally makes for easy listening, too many tunes eventually begin to sound like one another. And, though the subject matter is provocative, and there are interesting ideas to ponder—including the relationship between the present and the future, the possibility of a world without war, the “animating force” responsible for human intelligence, and the impact of technology—there’s little forward dramatic movement to the events.
Karen Kandel. Photo: Ben Arons.
By the time act one ended, so little suspense had been generated, in fact, it almost seemed unnecessary to return for act two. That, though, would have been a mistake, since set designers Emily Orling and Matt Saunders, whose act one set—possibly inspired by computer punch cards—is impressively creative, now cover the upstage area with a marvelous apparatus of wheels, gears, and gizmos to represent the Steam Brain in action.  (Kudos also to the elaborate lighting design of Yi Zhao.) The performers fill its niches and put it into motion, with percussionist master Eric Farber brilliantly demonstrating his considerable skills on its surfaces. Still, at nearly two hours, FUTURITY takes us much further into our own futures than the material warrants.
FUTURITY company. Photo: Ben Arons.
Note: A sign on the door to the theatre said that the box office would open a half hour before the curtain, scheduled for 3:00 p.m. when I went. The door didn’t open until 2:45, forcing the audience to stand outside on a chilly day. Once inside, the audience entered a dimly lit lobby, with a few benches and seats, and a bar selling drinks and, apparently, offering free popcorn. The doors to the auditorium didn’t open until after 3:00 p.m., so the audience milled about as an accordion-playing singer on a small platform entertained them. The show itself didn’t begin until 3:15 p.m.


Connelly Theatre
220 East Fourth Street, NYC
Through November 15

Saturday, October 24, 2015

88. Review: FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE (seen October 23, 2015)

"First Daughters Sweet and Sour"
Stars range from 5-1.

I saw neither the original, 1993, production of Michael John LaChiusa’s chamber musical, FIRST LADY SUITE, at the Public, nor its acclaimed 2004 Transport Group revival at the Connelly Theatre, but can’t help thinking it must have had much more substance than FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE, his follow-up treatment of presidential families, also at the Public. FIRST LADY SUITE provided four discrete scenes about a quartet of president’s wives, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower, Ladybird Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy; this new iteration, which runs two and a half hours, similarly presents four scenes, with presidential daughters their ostensible focus; the tone ranges from outright satire to empathy for private suffering. 

Barbara Walsh, Theresa McCarthy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In act one we have “Happy Pat,” about Tricia (Betsy Morgan) and Julie Nixon (Caissie Levy), and “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure,” featuring the eponymous 12-year-old (Carly Tamer) and Susan Ford (Ms. Morgan). Act two, which is the more artistically impressive of the two, introduces “Patti by the Pool,” about Patti Reagan (Ms. Levy), and “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried,” which gives us the ghost of Robin Bush (Theresa McCarthy), daughter of George H.W. and Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) and sister of George W. Bush, who died from leukemia when she was three.

The show’s ultimate goal seems to be to demonstrate how, despite the enormous pressures and difficulties of the Oval Office’s occupants, their family strife is no different than that of ordinary folks. Actually, a more accurate title for the show should be FIRST MOTHER AND DAUGHTER SUITE, as each scene is shared, and, in the case of the Bush family, even dominated by a presidential matriarch. The mothers, in fact, are the more interesting characters on display, although--as with the depiction of their offspring--there are few, if any, generalities one can draw from the piece about what living in the White House meant for thwm as a group.
From left: Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, Caissie Levy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Scene 1 is set at the White House in 1972, as President Nixon confers offstage about the Pentagon Papers with his close friend, Bebe Rebozo. Meanwhile, Tricia and Julie squabble about whether Tricia, about to be married at the White House, should do so out of doors under threatening skies or bring the chairs inside. Meanwhile, Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh, very fine), their chain-smoking, unhappy mom (despite the scene’s title), adjudicates, all the while being pestered by the ghost of Hannah Nixon (Theresa McCarthy), Dick Nixon’s disapproving thee and thine-spouting Quaker mother, who warns Pat about the dangers of “vanity.” (The wedding was on June 11, 1971, not 1972, a surprisingly blatant error that deserves a program correction.) Mr. LaChiusa has set this inconsequential incident to semi-operatic music, only briefly interrupted by music-backed dialogue. It’s all beautifully sung but—apart from Ms. Walsh’s portrayal of Pat’s loneliness—rather arid, as if a dramatic molehill thought it was NIXON IN CHINA.
Carly Tamer, Alison Fraser. Photo: Joan Marcus.
More enjoyable, despite its inanity, is the surrealistic scene (it’s a dream, after all) about the nerdy, braces-wearing Amy Carter, who’s sailing on the presidential yacht in 1980 with her boring, always-reading mom, Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones, excellent), the vivacious, always-boozing and crazily dancing Betty Ford (Alison Fraser, scene-stealingly good), and the Ford daughter, Susan, whose every quality young Amy thinks is “cool.” The weirdness of this setup—the supercilious Susan has it in for Amy because Jimmy Carter beat her dad, Gerald—gets weirder when the girls, dressing up in sheer silken robes trimmed with sequins, like something from the Arabian Nights, decide to rescue the American hostages being held by Iran, and Susan turns on the others by becoming a rifle-shooting terrorist. Escaping the somber tone of the other scenes, silliness prevails in both the performances (Ms. Tamer and Ms. Morgan are both terrific) and practically sung-through score. Having briefly known one of the eventually freed hostages I felt uncomfortable about laughing at this scene’s trivialization of what transpired.
Alison Fraser, Caissie Levy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Oddly, scene four, although now and then punctuated with musical touches—especially percussion accents—is performed more in dialogue than in song. It contrasts Nancy Reagan (Ms. Fraser), exquisitely coiffed, wearing movie star sunglasses, and dressed in a striking red wrapper and bathing suit, with her defiantly rebellious (and liberal) daughter Patti (Ms. Levy), in torn fishnet stockings and cutoff jeans. The pair, lounging poolside at Betsy Bloomingdale’s Beverly Hills home in 1986, bicker over Patti’s recent roman à clef about the Reagan family; further, Nancy wants the angry Patti to keep quiet about the Iran-Contra scandal. Also figuring in the action is Nancy’s pot-smoking Paraguayan maid, Anita Castelo (Isabel Santiago), who sings one of the score's more conventionally melodic numbers; the script alludes obliquely to her involvement in an ammunition smuggling scheme, but few will remember the incident. The mother-daughter dynamic is strong here, although the scene ends rather bizarrely. 
From left: Theresa McCarthy, Mary Testa, Rachel Bay Jones. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Thus far, the sympathies of Mr. LaChiusa, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, have leaned leftward, which is further demonstrated in the final scene, set in 2005 at Kennebunkport, ME, where Barbara (Bar) Bush is depicted, sympathetically, as the formidable matriarch (a.k.a. the “granite granny”) of a presidential clan that she herself claims produced a “mediocrity” in George W. Her continuing grief over the childhood death of Robin (Ms. McCarthy, in a flowing slip and long, blonde tresses), is revealed during her annual spiritual communion with the girl; we also see tension in her interchanges with George’s wife, Laura (Ms. Jones), who needs her mother-in-law to go on the campaign trail. All of it is raised to the tone of high drama through the operatic seriousness of the entirely sung-through score, focusing on Bar Bush’s indomitably regal presence (especially as captured in Ms. Testa’s commanding performance), with her famous shock of snow-white hair.

As I watched, I had the impression that anyone unfamiliar with the family issues and political events depicted would be confused; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit my own daughter, who never followed politics and had no interest in anyone represented in FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE, was charmed throughout, not merely by the performances, but by the work’s dramatic circumstances. The only Rebozos she ever heard of were those in the Cuban family that used to live next door, unrelated to Bebe but, I recall, visited in the early 1970s by the FBI.

There’s no disputing the extraordinary quality of the ensemble, each of whom sings and acts the often very complex, unconventional melodies with masterful skill and authority. Kirsten Sanderson provides smart direction on a set by Scott Pask that’s little more than simple furnishings on a glass-bottomed floor showing the illusion of flowing water. Aided by Chase Brock’s occasional choreography, Toni-Leslie James’s character-defining costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s evocative lighting, and Robert-Charles Vallance’s on target wigs, the cast makes the show as appealing as possible. However, too much on view, especially in act one, borders on the banal, and for anyone who lived through these years and paid attention, there’s nothing here not already known. Mr. LaChiusa’s music has its fans, but, despite moments of great beauty, its over-dependence on dialogue-supporting recitative with extended notes may not be for everybody.


Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through November 15

87. Review: ROMANCE LANGUAGE (seen October 19, 2015)

"Mamma Mia"
Stars range from 5-1.
For my review of ROMANCE LANGUAGE, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ!


Ars Nova
511 West Fifty-Fourth Street, NYC
Through November 8
Audrey Heffernan-Meyer, Mairin Lee. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mairin Lee, Audrey Heffernan-Meyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Jared Zirilli, Audrey Heffernan-Meyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mairin Lee, Audrey Heffernan-Meyer, Jared Zirilli. Photo: Joan Marcus.