First Daughter Suite


It takes a lot of talented people to make a lousy show. Michael John LaChiusa's new musical is First Daughter Suite. You'd think it would focus on the many first daughters to live in the White House, but you would be wrong. Split into four vignettes, First Daughter Suite attempts to get into the minds of the first ladies, particularly in the first and fourth vignettes. (The second is the only one that truly lives up to the title.)

We begin with "Happy Pat," set on June 11, 1972, as Tricia Nixon (Betsy Morgan) is getting ready for her White House wedding. Her younger sister, Julie Nixon Eisenhower (Caissie Levy), is around to help/bother (take your pick) the bride, but LaChiusa's efforts are trained on delving into Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh)'s psyche. To do so, he conjures the ghost of Hannah Nixon (Theresa McCarthy), Tricky Dick's deceased mother. Levy (Hair, Les Miserables) is great as mean girl Julie, and it's nice to see Walsh (Company) on stage, but the scene falls flat. Part of this is because we hardly get to know the first daughters, as the title promises, and partly because it is just too melodramatic for my taste. (And Hannah's continual (and improper) use of the pronoun "thee" drove me bonkers.)

Next is "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure," which allows us to imagine a meeting of the Carters, Amy (Carly Tamer) and Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones), and the Fords, Susan (Morgan) and Betty (Alison Fraser). (Because it's a dream, anything can happen, and Fraser is gleefully unhinged as Betty Ford, pre-rehab. Jones (Pippin) is subdued, providing a great foil.) As I mentioned earlier, this scene is actually about the first daughters, and we get a peek into the unique and odd triumphs and challenges of being a first daughter.

Unfortunately, there's not much of this insight in the rest of the musical. The third scene, "Patti by the Pool," is mostly a conversation between Patti Davis (Levy) and Nancy Reagan (Fraser), with sporadic appearances (and an odd conclusion) by Anita Castelo (Isabel Santiago), a maid who has a history with the Reagans. The other three vignettes are mostly sung through, but this one is dialogue-heavy, with only momentary bursts of song from Patti.

First Daughter Suite concludes with "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried," which takes place in Kennebunkport in October 2005. Here we see Barbara Bush (Mary Testa)—that would be George H.W. Bush's wife, not his granddaughter, who was actually a first daughter—talking with Robin Bush (McCarthy), Barbara and George's deceased daughter. Laura Bush (Jones), W's wife, periodically comes in, relaying messages from the men and trying to reason with her prickly mother-in-law.

The final tableau (First Daughter Suite is directed by Kristen Sanderson), finds everyone looking at Barbara Bush. This image reminded my friend and me of Assassins, and, indeed, the idea here is similar: Put together a group of people who have this one, entirely distinguishing thing—something you have to go through to understand—in common, and see what happens. That's an interesting concept, but it just doesn't work.

The misdirection of the title aside (and LaChiusa has already written First Lady Suite), the score does not excite; it does not open up a piece of this strange world of living your life in public, of having this honorific and place in history despite not seeking it. Rather than go for deep, thoughtful analysis, First Daughter Suite trades in summary-page, tabloid psychology, which is disappointing given the caliber of artists on and off stage. Again, the exception is the imaginative Amy Carter dream, which, when going for laughs, finds truths and drama. Perhaps that should have been the tack taken in the other three vignettes, which all went for sophisticated drama but got soap opera pastiche instead.

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