‘First Daughter’ pretty but problematic

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy in First Daughter Suite, a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Kirsten Sanderson, running at The Public Theater.

If you have ever had the desire to see presidential first daughters Betty Ford, Susan Ford, Rosalyn Carter and Amy Carter attempt to first handedly rescue American hostages in Iran, Michael John LaChiusa’s “First Daughter Suite” might be for you.

“First Daughter Suite” is a musical following the lives of U.S. presidents’ daughters, which highlights the scrutiny of living under the public eye and its effects on their familial relationships.

The musical is separated into four completely unrelated scenes. Each scene can be considered political satire, but the level of satire changes drastically from scene to scene makes the continuity of the musical a bit shaky.

The first scene follows the day of Tricia Nixon’s wedding and how the release of the Pentagon Papers, as well as a light downpour ruined her special day. The second scene is a dream sequence where Betty Ford, Susan Ford, Rosalyn Carter and Amy Carter are on a yacht and sail to Iran to rescue U.S. hostages during the Iran-Contra, only to find out that Susan Ford is a terrorist herself. The third scene follows a spat between Nancy Reagan and her step daughter, Patti Davis, after her release of a tell-all book. The final scene follows Barbara Bush talking to the ghost of her dead daughter on the anniversary of her death, as well as coping with the fact that George W. Bush’s time in office has made the Bush family unpopular.

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The show uses many surreal elements, but in confusing ways. While in the yacht scene, any absurd or surreal elements are fitting and very well executed, creating a humorous and clever scene, those elements did not work as well in the other scenes. This yacht scene was teetering on the line of racism with its portrayal of Iran and Iranians. It operated under the idea that all Iranians were terrorists and that they spoke in a language made up entirely of Middle Eastern foods, babbling food names, like “shish kebab” and “baklava.”

The surreal aspects got lost in the more realistic scenes and made it look more like historical inaccuracies than intentional creative decisions. Additionally, the recurring theme of the austere First Ladies as poor mothers became a bit dry.

That said, despite the sometimes dull script, the show was well executed. The music was beautiful, although not entirely memorable, and the performances by the actors were superb. Standout performances in particular were by Alison Fraser, who played Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford, and Betsy Morgan, who played Tricia Nixon and Susan Ford. Fraser’s over-the-top, yet sincere acting brought depth and complexity to her characters, while Morgan’s powerhouse belt complemented both of her characters. 

The minimal stage design and small size of the theater were used to the show’s advantage. The small space mimicked the fishbowl that these women are subjected to, given their place in the public eye. Each actor is so invested in their character and in tune with one another, which is particularly moving to see so close up. While the script was repetitive and sometimes hard to follow, “First Daughters Suite” is still an incredibly beautiful production.

“The First Daughter Suite” is playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., until Nov. 15.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 26 print edition. Email Joseph Myers at [email protected]

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