So far this season the best show I’ve seen is the Off Broadway musical First Daughter Suite. Composer Michael John LaChiusa first made a splash with First Lady Suite, which premiered at the Public Theater in 1993. That was before my time as a New York theatergoer, but no knowledge of the earlier work is needed to appreciate this followup, which isn’t really a sequel, as the first mothers are ever present.
LaChiusa peeks into the lives of a quartet of these ever-familiar but always somewhat distant figures with tremendous musical dexterity. The composer has never had a huge hit, but he crafts steadily, and the cast albums for The Wild Party (2000), a well-regarded Broadway flop with Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette, and Eartha Kitt, and the Public production of See What I Wanna See (2005), starring Idina Menzel, are among my favorites. Graced with a simple, evocative staging by director Kirsten Sanderson, the oratorio, almost entirely sung-through, is in four parts, each about 45 minutes in length and chronicling facets of turbulently imagined mother-daughter relationships.
Wedding bells are ringing in the first vignette, “Happy Pat,” but no one in the Nixon White House is feeling terribly celebratory. Julie (Caissie Levy) and Tricia (Betsy Morgan) feud and Pat (Barbara Walsh) feels encroaching paranoia over the presidency, as the ghost of her mother-in-law Hannah (Theresa McCarthy) offers little but cold comfort. Ghosts and all-too-human realities intersect as LaChiusa mines the personal from the political.
In the zaniest segment, “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure,” 12-year-old Amy (Carly Tamer) teams up with Susan Ford (Betsy Morgan), a jaded twentysomething, on a naval mission aboard the presidential yacht to rescue the Iranian hostages as the Carter White House slips away. The quiet, bookish Rosalynn (Rachel Bay Jones) counsels Amy, “Daughters of presidents, daughters of kings/Can never experience everyday things,” as Susan wrestles with Amy’s hero worship and the vicissitudes of post-presidential life. The show is stolen, however, by the high-spirited, pre-clinic Betty Ford (Alison Fraser), depicted as a fun-loving flapper.
The only one of the pieces with dialogue is the third, “Patti by the Pool.” It’s also the weakest, as LaChiusa struggles to musicalize the tension between Patti Davis (Levy), who has written a tell-all about her parents, and Nancy Reagan (Fraser), who, poolside at friend Betsy Bloomingdale’s estate, is trying to keep a lid on the Iran Contra scandal by any means necessary. For all of the gossipy extremes the composer goes to, Reagan (think The Manchurian Candidate and Angela Lansbury) is the only person devoid of sympathy in the entire show, and the conspiracy-minded scenario is too partisan to score. Still, I can picture the actual Patti cackling through it.
The show concludes with its haymaker punch, “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried.” Not having seen the legendary Ethel Merman onstage, I can only guess that our great Mary Testa is equaling, and even surpassing her, as Barbara Bush in this astonishing piece. Chipping away at the “granite granny,” Testa is unforgettable, as she spars gently with George’s wife Laura (Jones, perfectly cast as the two most composed and unknowable first ladies) while she pays her annual visit to the grave of her long-deceased daughter Robin (McCarthy), who remains a child. I’m not sure what all the facts are here, but LaChiusa’s imagining is what I call “pindrop theatre”–other than the performers, the Anspacher was absolutely silent as Testa vented Bush’s grief, remorse, and longings in song. Stupendous. The Public also incubated Hamilton–while First Daughter Suite isn’t destined for that level of sensation, I eagerly await the cast album, to revisit some memorable women.