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A CurtainUp Review
First Daughter Suite
By Elyse Sommer
Since Curtainup was eight years old by then I was able to write about this new First Lady Suite. (review ). Actually, this was a revised version, enriched in content and its characters and with a dynamite cast. People flocked down to east fifth street, seeding several extensions. That production has remained one of my all-time favorite small, operatic musicals so news of a sequel to once again have its premiere at the Public Theater was indeed welcome, especially since it again featured Mary Testa one of Mr. Lachiusa's premiere interpreters who played Eleanor Roosevelt's lover, the journalist Lorena "Hick" Hitchcock in First Lady Suite — and for whom he wrote a quite different history play, Queen of the Mist four years ago ( review).
To establish the sense that we will be meeting different personalities — mothers and mothers-in-law as well as daughters and daughters-in-law — Kirsten Sanderson, who also directed the Public's First Lady Suite, has book ended the new two-act, 4-segment show with a panorama of the entire 9-member ensemble. That ensemble gets off to a musical and theme setting start with a song about the house they've all lived in "that will never be a home." This number is effectively distributed through the ensemble, with some lines sung as solos, some as a group. It's clear that LaChiusa hasn't lost his touch for story telling, witty lyrics.
Ms. Testa is there looking very imposing and Barbara Bush-like with a curly white wig. But before you get to see what her Presidential wife and mother has to say and sing, you'll have to make few stops.
First, is a visit with Richard Nixon's ghostly disapproving and disappointed mother Hannah, wife Pat and two daughters (the occasion, the Barbie doll pretty Tricia's 1972 wedding, the preparations for which one lyric likens to "planning an invasion, plus landing on the moon"). You'll also be transported into a surreal 1980 dream on the Presidential yacht with young Amy Carter the dreamer pulling Susan Ford and moms Rosalyn and Betty Ford into her her "adventure. From there it's on to listening in on a poolside squabble between President Reagan's alienated daughter Patti Davis and mom Nancy who, along with her Latin maid, is not about to let the liberal Patti cause the Iran-Contra affair to move in the wrong direction.
As much of the action in First Lady Suite was airborne, so water plays a big part here. In "Happy Pat," rain upsets Tricia's plan for a garden ceremony. The dream into which Amy Carter pulls Susan Ford is an ocean borne fantasy prompted by Amy's desire to rescue the American hostages in Iran and thereby save her dad's presidency, as well as her unique position as a White House child. The mother-daughter battleground for Reagan's wife and daughter is a luxurious private pool in California. The finale has Barbara Bush's beloved, long dead daughter Robin emerge from their Kennebunkport home's beach front to celebrate the anniversary of her death with her mom. Another connecting link comes via the various looming national crise s such as Watergate for the Nixons, the Iran Hostage crisis for the Carters and Iran-Contra for the Reagans.
The wives and daughters are all very well portrayed, with some expert double role playing and the singing reflecting a feel for LaChiusa's distinctive and often rather heavy musical vocabulary. A folk song delivered by the peripheral character of the Nicaraguan maid in "Patti by the Pool" is a standout summarizing as it does the mommy dearest situation on view ("A Mama Wants Her Children/to Be Happy./happy For As Long As They May Live./but She Cannot Always Give Them/all They Want./and What They Really Want:/she May Not Know How To Give").
The final stop on this musical sojourn is most moving. Testa's Barbara Bush truly make this sequel burst into memorable fascinating life. As usual, she is a commanding presence, her voice is magnificent and LaChiusa has given her the most emotionally stirring story and sharpest lyrics. "In the Deep Boom of the Ocean Buried" is like "Amy Carter's Fabuous Dream Adventure" a fantasia in that the lovely grown-up Robin (quite a change for Theresa McCann from Richard Nixon's mother) is clearly a vision seen only by her mother. Actually it's only a partial fantasia since the annual communion with this ghostly daughter coincides with her son, the 43rd U.S. President, having sent daughter-in-law Laura to persuade her to help his campaign for a second term.
Testa's sardonic mantra, "Everything we worked for/everything undone" is likely to be most appreciated and enjoyed by those who share this Bush mom's opinion of her son. Besides being the show's best song this also echoes the foreboding and disappointment of Nixon's mother who earlier on disapproved of her son (In spite of his exalted position/he knows"what is right but is/attracted to the wrong"); also of his daughters who she thinks Pat (the excellent Barbara Walsh) raised to be "vain and shallow/weak and fallow."
The stage craft — costumes, wigs —is impeccable. Scott Pask's glistening floor supports the watery atmosphere and the idea of all these presidential satellites being in a giant fish bowl. And the small orchestra is neatly positioned in a balcony above the stage.
LaChiusa's many fans won't want to miss First Daughter Suite, even though flights of fancy and references aren't as hit-home as those in First Wives'Suite. Somehow the Nixon wedding feels rather dated (and trivial), with younger audience member unlikely to even know who Martha Mitchell or Bebe Rebozo were , or be familiar with Patti Davis's books or Susan Ford's "coolness." Who knew that Barbara Bush would be my favorite next of kin to a president?