I don’t know what’s in the drinking water down at the Public Theater but they ought to bottle it for sale at the snack bar. Michael John LaChiusa’s very moving and beautifully executed First Daughter Suite expands the portfolio of significant new works to come out of the East Village complex that currently includes Tony winner Fun Home, Hamilton, Eclipsed (which will move to Broadway in February) and Barbecue. I would stress that while some of these shows were developed with considerable help from the Public’s friends in the commercial sector, none had hit written all over them, at least not in the sense of hit meaning ticket sales.
First Daughter Suite comprises four scenes, two per act, about the mothers and daughters of recent Presidents. In the first, “Happy Pat,” it’s 1972 and Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh) is helping older daughter Julie (Caissie Levy) navigate her rainy wedding day at the White House, as well as her snotty younger sister Tricia (Betsy Morgan), who beat her to the altar and married the son of a former President, to boot.
The second, “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure,” brings out Carly Tamer as a the Peanut Farmer’s young daughter onboard the Sequoia, the Presidential yacht, where she’s accompanied by Mom, Rosalyn (Rachel Bay Jones), Betty Ford (Alison Fraser), somewhat blazed, and her free-spirited daughter Susan Ford (Morgan).
After intermission in “Patti By The Pool,” it’s 1986 and we’re waterside at the California estate of Betsy Bloomingdale, where Nancy Reagan (Fraser) is trying to reconcile with bad-seed daughter Patti Davis six months after the publication of her no-holds-barred roman à clef. Patti quickly deduces that Nancy’s actual goal is securing a promise that she will be supportive during the Iran/Contra scandal that is engulfing Ronnie, and she ain’t playing.
In the final scene, “In The Deep Bosom Of The Ocean Buried,” it’s 2005 in Kennebunkport, ME, where Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) is talking with daughter Robin (Theresa McCarthy), or the lively ghost of the child who in fact died in 1953 of leukemia, just before her fourth birthday. From another room comes Laura Bush (Rachel Bay Jones), imploring her mother-in-law to join husband and the son whom Barbara already has confided to us seems hellbent on dismantling his father’s legacy.
So: Psychologically complex scenarios drawn with the concision of short stories and the gorgeously variegated musical textures of oratorio. LaChiusa is one of the most prolific composer/lyricists working in the theater today. His works range from the earlier First Lady Suite to the sprawling, ambitious Giant to the roundelay Hello Again and the Tony-nominated Chronicle of A Death Foretold and The Wild Party. That’s about as wide a range of works as the imagination can conceive, and while I have loved some of them more than others, none lacked for intelligence and ambition.
No such disparity obtains here. First Daughter Suite is absolutely enchanting, musically and dramatically. It’s staged with mesmerizing delicacy by Kirsten Sanderson (direction) and Chase Brock (choreography) on Scott Pask’s minimalist set and lighting by Tyler Micoleau that seamlessly transforms the atmosphere from the Eastern to California coasts. The musical lines have the swelling intensity of Schubert lieder while the words can attack like cherry bombs:
“Of all my boys, even the two dead ones, Richard was the greatest disappointment,” sings Hannah Nixon (Theresa McCarthy) in the first scene. “In spite of his exalted position. He knows what is the right thing but is attracted to the wrong.” The sentiment later is echoed in Barbara Bush’s final scene lament: “Everything we worked for. Everything undone. All of it obscured by a mediocre son.”
It’s not all bitterness; there’s enough sadness and whimsy in First Daughter Suite, all kept deftly in balance, to leave us wanting more. I didn’t want it to end.