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