Amy Carter is 47 years old now, but she is forever 12 in history, and also in First Daughter Suite, Michael John LaChiusa’s fanciful musical at the Public Theater. In the musical, however, unlike in history, Amy travels to Iran to free the hostages and also makes the First Lady quack like a duck.
“Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure” is one of the four extended scenes in LaChiusa’s new musical, each focused on different recent First Ladies and their daughters. In Amy’s supposed dream, she and her mother Rosalynn Carter are on board the Presidential yacht with Susan Ford and her mother Betty Ford, who is drunkenly dancing. Susan, resentful of Amy because President Carter beat President Ford in the election, evilly persuades Amy to take the yacht to Iran. There they encounter an armed Iranian revolutionary shouting “Hezbollah! Hummus hummus! Baklava! Shish kebob!”
It’s the most cartoonish of the four segments in the show, not as funny as it surely is supposed to be, and the most likely to offend somebody. The other scenes also take liberties (though not as much), and each ends with a surprise twist, some of which are outrageous.
But don’t be misled by the Amy Carter scene, which is the outlier. For all its lapses, First Daughter Suite offers great satisfactions. The most prominent of these is the wonderful all-female cast. Their golden, semi-operatic voices splendidly interpret LaChiusa’s clever lyrics and lush art songs, the mostly sung-through score punctuated by everything from martial music to the blues to a snippet of marimba. The cast’s spot-on acting inspires some genuinely moving moments.
The musical, which focuses as much on the First Ladies Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, and Bush as on their daughters, can be considered a sequel of sorts to First Lady Suite. The three segments of LaChiusa’s 1993 breakthrough musical were hardly any tamer, imagining Mamie Eisenhower confronting her husband about his infidelity with his chauffeur, Kay Summersby, in order to force him to resolve the 1957 Little Rock desegregation standoff; Jacqueline Kennedy visiting her private secretary (in her secretary’s dream) on Air Force One en route to Dallas on November 22, 1963; and Eleanor Roosevelt flying in Amelia Earhart’s plane with her lover Lorena Hickok.
Kirsten Sanderson,who directed that piece, is back helming its sequel with minimal props or set, more than compensated for by the maximum wigs by Robert-Charles Vallance and costumes by Toni-Leslie James.
All nine actresses do such a stellar job that the joy in their performances is less in their impersonations of public figures as in their embodiments of breathing human beings. The frequent double casting is especially striking. Caissie Levy, for example, plays two very different characters. In the first segment, “Happy Pat,” she is a calm, mature Julie Nixon Eisenhower at the moment when her distraught older sister Tricia (Betsy Morgan) is about to get married in the White House. The plan was to hold the wedding outdoors, but it’s raining — a major crisis for Tricia, while meanwhile her father is holed up in the Oval Office, stewing over the release of the Pentagon Papers.
Then in “Patti By The Pool,” Levy portrays a punked-out Patti Davis, sitting on a sun chair poolside in California in 1986, determined to shock her mother Nancy Reagan (a perfect Alison Fraser, fashionably attired in designer red) who remains imperturbable. Levy delivers two separate show-stopping musical numbers in this one scene. The acting is so precise and persuasive in this scene that one can overlook the chilling, conspiracy-theory resolution.
Mary Testa is astonishing as Barbara Bush in the final segment, “In The Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried,” which takes place in 2003 in the Bush family’s Kennebunkport, Maine compound. It is the most serious and moving of the scenes, especially when we learn the reason for the tension between Barbara Bush, who, with some bitter irony, calls herself the Granite Granny, and her daughter-in-law Laura Bush (portrayed subtly by Rachel Bay Jones, who also plays Rosalynn Carter)
Each of the segments is set against a backdrop of a memorable moment in U.S. Presidential history, which helps explain the total absence of the Presidents; they’re preoccupied with affairs of state or politics. The overarching theme of First Daughter Suite is the disappointment the women in the White House feel with their husbands, and their children, and the toll taken by living – as they all sing in the opening number – “in a house that will never be a home.”
First Daughter Suite is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003, below Astor Place in the East Village), through November 15.
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