The Ladies Who Last: “First Daughter Suite”

Theresa McCarthy, Mary Testa and Rachel Bay Jones
Theresa McCarthy as Robin Bush, Mary Testa as Barbara Bush and Rachel Bay Jones as Laura Bush in Michael John LaChiusa’s First Daughter Suite. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

Having introduced Hamilton only a few months back as the best American musical of this and many previous years, the Public Theater has brought forth another gorgeous piece of writing from one of its favorite composer-lyricists, Michael John LaChiusa, who follows his memorable First Lady Suite with the catchily titled First Daughter Suite. Running through Nov. 15, the piece consists of four one-acts in which First Daughters and First Ladies appear in circumstances entirely of the songwriter’s imagining. The fourth piece — “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried” — is so stunning that the noun-adjective “classic” can instantly be attached to it.

In that piece, Mary Testa, LaChiusa’s major muse, here in curly white wig, gives an indelible portrait of Barbara Bush. The former First Lady is spending a 2005 Kennebunkport day honoring the memory of her deceased daughter Robin, embodied by Theresa McCarthy. She is frequently interrupted by First Lady Laura Bush, played by Rachel Bay Jones, who attempts to coax her mother-in-law to join the rest of the family to prepare for the campaign trail.

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Swathed in a beige wrap, the first words Barbara Bush sings refer to her “mediocre son.” With those words, LaChiusa taps into a view that many voters likely associate with the real Barbara Bush. Nor does he much stray from other Bush facts. It’s known, if not often mentioned, that the Bushes lost 3-year-old Robin to leukemia in 1953, which left Barbara Bush in continual grief. So rather than this sequence being strict satire of the Bush family, it’s eventually a profound portrait of a woman in extremis. It’s a depiction on which LaChiusa and Testa have clearly collaborated intensely, and for which McCarthy and Jones do their share to deepen the proceedings. Testa’s three-dimensional approach, touchingly achieved with vocal and emotional modulations, is a master class in acting.

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Carly Tamer and Alison Fraser
Carly Tamer as Amy Carter and Alison Fraser as Betty Ford.

In the lush Michael Starobin-Bruce Coughlin orchestrations, LaChiusa’s melodies for this act gather and break like the dark waters that Barbara Bush can view — as seen in set designer Scott Pask’s illuminated glass floor. LaChiusa’s inventions flow unimpeded as Barbara Bush sees the daughter with whom she communes once a year. And she resists Laura Bush’s continual importuning, verbally assaulting her more than once.

“In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried” is one of those interludes so satisfying that a spectator could take it in again immediately. One may not have the same reaction to the other three acts, but fortunately, “Patti By the Pool,” which opens the second act, has plenty to recommend it. This one finds LaChiusa gunning for bear.

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The bear is Nancy Reagan (Alison Fraser). The wily First Lady is found reclining by pal Betsy Bloomingdale’s pool in Holmby Hills (abetted by lighting designer Tyler Micoleau) with daughter Patti Davis (Caissie Levy). The time is 1986-87 — several months after Davis published her first novel, Home Front, which is based on her life and the Reagan family. (Her follow-up, As I See It: An Autobiography was published in 1992.) Complaining that her parents have shunned her for six months, Davis has been summoned for a seeming rapprochement with her unctuous mother.

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Belting to beat the band with disdain, Davis comes to understand that she’s there actually to be silenced about the Iran-Contra affair. While Fraser’s Nancy repeats the mantra “Your father didn’t know anything,” Levy’s Patti, in early-Madonna-esque torn-lace-stockings drag, sings with unabated and angry power.

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh and Caissie Levy.
Betsy Morgan as Tricia Nixon, Barbara Walsh as Pat Nixon and Caissie Levy as Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

LaChiusa’s opener is “Happy Pat,” which takes place at the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon (Betsy Morgan). Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh), Julie Nixon Eisenhower (Levy) and the ghost of Richard Nixon’s mother, Hannah (McCarthy), are all present — and clashing over important-day details. Why LaChiusa calls the segment “Happy Pat” is slightly puzzling. Contending with her quarrelsome daughters and even more quarrelsome Quaker mother-in-law, she doesn’t come across as happy.

Perhaps LaChiusa means to be ironic. Pat Nixon’s much-discussed unhappiness as a woman trained to smile whatever the circumstance would seem to offer LaChiusa more opportunity for amusing comment than he seizes. This is a woman whose perpetually pleasant demeanor rarely read as genuine.

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Barbara Walsh and Theresa McCarthy.
Barbara Walsh as Pat Nixon and Theresa McCarthy as Hannah Nixon.

Then there’s the baffling “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure.” In that act, the Carter’s First Daughter (young Carly Tamer) dreams she’s aboard the Presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Sequoia (which was in fact sold off by President Carter in 1977).

The dream features First Lady Rosalynn Carter (Jones), a tipsy Betty Ford (Fraser), and Ford’s daughter, the marauding Susan Ford (Morgan). Suffering from a case of severe paranoia, Amy imagines Susan disguised as a terrorist who ultimately shoots their mothers.

What this devastating development is expected to add up to is anybody’s guess. Maybe LaChiusa is speculating on the prospects and fears that all first daughters have as they contemplate their post-White House futures.

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Still, Rosalynn does sing a charming song to Amy that begins:

Daughters of presidents
Daughters of kings
Can never experience
Everyday things.

It’s a waltz with a melancholic edge that lingers in the ear nicely. Jones delivers the number in pure voice; she is equally dulcet, yet firm, as Laura Bush. But she’s hardly alone in consistent vocal persuasion. This is a cast — including Isabel Santiago as Bloomingdale’s attentive servant — of women with thrilling voices. They’re especially impressive in the prologue and epilogue when they’re all on stage together, and they make the most of LaChiusa’s songs and the six-piece ensemble conducted by the formidable Or Matias.

As in First Lady Suite, First Daughter Suite is populated by characters whose wardrobes and hairstyles are familiar. It’s fallen to costume designer Toni-Leslie James and wigsmith Robert-Charles Vallance to suggest them, which they do with accuracy and often humor. Hats (and wigs) off to LaChiusa’s highly commendable addition to his ever-burgeoning canon.