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Michael John LaChiusa is a singularly gifted, hugely original maker of musical theater who, like Stephen Sondheim before him, insists on going his own idiosyncratic way. While his shows rarely have any obvious commercial appeal, the Public Theater, to its infinite credit, keeps on producing them. Hence “First Daughter Suite,” a quartet of fictional portraits of the daughters and wives of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder. No, it’s not especially political. Instead, Mr. LaChiusa has given us something far more interesting, a four-part dramatic poem about the pathos of unsought fame whose score is as beautiful as anything that Mr. Sondheim ever wrote in his prime.
The one-act musicals that make up “First Daughter Suite” vary widely in style. “Happy Pat” is a dark comedy about the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon (Betsy Morgan) in which Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh) is visited by the censorious ghost of her husband’s Quaker mother (Theresa McCarthy). “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure” is a surreal fantasy in which young Amy (Carly Tamer) takes various Carters and Fords on a fantastic voyage to Iran. “Patti by the Pool” portrays a savage skirmish between Patti Davis (Caissie Levy) and Nancy Reagan (Alison Fraser). In “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried,” Laura Bush (Rachel Bay Jones) tries to lure Barbara (Mary Testa) onto the campaign trail, not knowing that her mother-in-law is preoccupied by memories of her daughter Robin (Ms. McCarthy), who died of leukemia at the age of four.
What all four acts have in common is that they show us the private lives of a group of women who have paid in variously painful ways for their unseen husbands’ ambitions….
“Dames at Sea,” the ultra-campy 1966 musical about the you’ll-come-back-a-star backstage movie musicals of the early ’30s, has finally made it to Broadway. I’m not sure why, since the point of the show, which employs just six performers (one of whom plays two parts) and whose original downtown run opened the door to fame for Bernadette Peters, is that it’s a low-budget miniature send-up of the genre. Staging it on Broadway would seem to be somewhat beside the point, though this gussied-up revival, directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, is nothing if not charming. If you like high-velocity tap dancing, you’ll see (and hear) plenty of it…
So what’s not to like? Nothing whatsoever—but there isn’t enough to love about “Dames at Sea,” which may have seemed sufficiently witty a half-century ago but has long since been outclassed by the encyclopedically knowing musical-comedy spoofery of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Compared with that big-brain homage, “Dames at Sea” isn’t much more clever than a college show…
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To read my review of First Daughter Suite, go here.
To read my review of Dames at Sea, go here.