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Composer Michael John LaChiusa returns to the distaff side of the Presidential well for the sequel to his 1993 chamber musical First Lady Suite, the show that first marked him as a theater composer on the rise. Concentrating on the offspring of such recent chief executives as Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush, First Daughter Suite offers much of the same mixture of quirky humor and poignant reflection as the original. But also much like its predecessor, it displays more precocious cheekiness than depth. The production being presented by the Public Theater, where the original premiered, will best be appreciated by LaChiusa’s ardent fans.
Unfolding in chronological order, the musical is divided into four vignettes. The first, Happy Pat, is set in the White House in 1972, where Tricia Nixon (Betsy Morgan) is preparing for her wedding in the company of her mother Pat (Barbara Walsh), sister Julie (Caissie Levy) and the ghost of her grandmother Hannah Nixon (a hilariously droll Theresa McCarthy). Much to Tricia’s dismay, heavy rain threatens to derail the outdoor nuptials.
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“Daddy may be President, but he can’t control the weather,” Julie comments, to which Pat replies, “Don’t tell him that.”
Besides name-dropping such colorful figures in Nixon’s orbit as Martha Mitchell and Bebe Rebozo (“It sounds like the name of a clown,” Hannah sneers about the latter), the curtain-raiser about the love/hate relationship between the female family members doesn’t add up to much.
Even slighter is Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure, set on the Presidential yacht sailing down the Potomac in 1980. A teenage Amy (Carly Tamer), sporting her trademark geeky glasses and stringy hair, is accompanied by her mother Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones), who despite having her nose buried in a book constantly tries to keep her obstreperous tween in check. Also along for the ride is Betty Ford (Alison Fraser), giddily dancing and imbibing, and her daughter Susan (Morgan), who would clearly rather be anyplace else.
The surreal skit, in which Susan proposes sailing to Iran to free the hostages and a terrorist invades the yacht, is far more silly than illuminating, although Fraser is a hilarious hoot as the pre-rehab Betty Ford.
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Fraser also impresses, albeit in a far different vein, in Patti by the Pool, set in 1986 at the estate of the Reagans’ friend Betsy Bloomingdale. Lounging by the pool is Nancy (Fraser, superbly conveying the former First Lady’s reserve), wearing a glamorous red bathing suit, and rebellious daughter Patti (Levy), clad in tiny cut-off jean shorts and repeatedly asking the hovering attendant Anita (Isabel Santiago) for a “Jack and Coke.”
Far more dialogue-heavy than the others, the Reagan piece depicts the tensions between the mother and daughter, who haven’t talked for six months as a result of Patti’s roman a clef novel about her family. And despite such broadly comic moments as Patti taunting her mother by singing about making it with a “big, nasty black man” and a darkly absurdist twist ending, it largely has the feel of emotional truth.
As does In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried, in which a haughty Barbara Bush (a superb Mary Testa) laments having a “mediocre son” while mournfully commemorating the anniversary of her three-year-old daughter Robin’s death 50 years earlier. Proudly living up to her “No Tears” motto and her reputation as the “Granite Granny,” Barbara deals with the grownup specter of her deceased daughter (McCarthy), and her daughter-in-law Laura (Jones), who loyally defends her husband.
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Although the evening features plenty of emotionally and comically resonant moments along the way — familiarity with the historical figures depicted helps greatly — First Daughter Suite is ultimately too trivial and self-indulgent to register as much more than a curiosity. And while LaChiusa’s lyrics are often witty, his recitative-heavy score is mostly tedious and repetitive, its high style too often jarring with the sophomoric silliness of the proceedings.
Repeating her chores from the original, director Kirsten Sanderson applies a sure touch to the slight material and has elicited sterling performances from the ensemble. Special mention must also go to Toni-Leslie James‘ costumes and Robert-Charles Vallance‘s wig and hair designs, which wittily and immediately make the characters recognizable.
Cast: Alison Fraser, Rachel Bay Jones, Caissie Levy, Theresa McCarthy, Betsy Morgan, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer, Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh
Book, music & lyrics: Michael John LaChiusa
Director: Kristen Sanderson
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Choreographer: Chase Brock
Presented by the Public Theater
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