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A Look at Three Current NYC Productions

First Daughter Suite (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Theatrically Speaking
A look at Three Current NYC Productions


The need to catch up with shows that are about to disappear into the ether of time prompted a recent trip to New York City. I was rewarded with some indelible theater memories. The most impressive of these was the chamber musical, First Daughter Suite, by Western New York’s Michael John LaChiusa, extended through this weekend at the Public Theater. Achingly beautiful yet giddily dangerous in its humor, this intimate series of vignettes about the daughters of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, provides a spectacular showcase for its creator’s astonishing talent.

The show is a kind of sequel to his 1993 musical, First Lady Suite, performed two years ago at Buffalo’s American Repertory Theater, where it was produced by Mr. LaChiusa’s younger brother, Matthew LaChiusa. These shows have in common flights of fantasy about women who have lived beneath the microscope of public scrutiny, because of the men to whom they were married or related.

The opening vignette, for instance, finds Pat Nixon, portrayed with sad detachment by Barbara Walsh, playing referee between her daughters, Tricia and Julie, on the day of Tricia’s White House Wedding, and doing battle with the ghost of her Quaker mother-in-law.

In another sequence, we journey into the dream adventure of 12 year-old Amy Carter, wherein the first daughter is on the presidential yacht with her vigilant mother; her White House predecessor Susan Ford; and Susan’s way more fun mother Betty as the foursome heads out to rescue the American hostages in Iran. This tour de force of deranged invention explodes into daft escapades and comic violence as it weaves together tabloid speculation about the frustration of being blamed for global events, rivalries between presidential families, Mrs. Ford’s drinking, Mrs. Carter’s temperance, and Susan’s rancorous frustration with her mother’s disregard for her privacy.

Each actress in these little plays is perfection—Rachel Bay Jones as Mrs. Carter; Carly Tamer as Amy; Betsy Morgan as Susan; and Alison Fraser as Billy Beer swilling and Martha Graham dancing Mrs. Ford. And the music is glorious.

Ms. Fraser makes a return in a scene about Nancy Reagan and her daughter Patti Davis, in which LaChiusa introduces ominous percussion reminiscent of the drum at a Tudor execution to punctuate the First Lady’s internal response to her wayward daughter. Davis, played by Caissie Levy, has a talent for gnawing at her mother’s nerves with her biting observations and humiliating life choices. Fraser never betrays distress, right up to and including the moment when she goes in for the kill. Both Fraser and Levy are divine.

Mary Testa gives a moving and stately performance as a dryly humorous and cynical Barbara Bush in an episode that has her visit with the spirit of the daughter she lost to leukemia when the child was three. This fantasy takes place against the backdrop of the faltering reelection bid of a son she sees as determined to erode his father’s presidential legacy.

In the final analysis, of course, this is not a show about presidential daughters, but about White House mothers. The men in the lives of these women never appear and the portrait we get of this succession of presidencies is seldom flattering. And while humor is never far from the surface, and it is doubtful that any of the women portrayed will ever deign to view the depiction, each is imbued with something admirable and even regal.

On Your Feet


On Your Feet, the new musical about the lives and careers of Gloria and Emilio Estefan is a joyful event. It may lack the artistry and invention of Mr. LaChiusa’s work, but it makes up for this with energetic razzle-dazzle and palpable sentiment. Ana Villafañe is terrific as Gloria; Josh Segarra is eminently charming as Emilio; Andrea Burns gives an affecting performance as Gloria’s bitter mother; and Alma Cuervo is irresistible as Gloria’s grandmother. And oh, the music!

Created in the same mold as Beautiful, which recounts the career of Carol King, and Jersey Boys, which tells the story of the Four Seasons, On Your Feet gives us the Estefan story using very broad strokes, cheap sentiment, and crowd-pleasingly doses of claptrap—all of which I mean in the very nicest way, because I really loved this show, rooted for its characters, and was sorry when it was over.

Misery: Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes and Bruce Wilis as Paul Sheldon (Photo by Joan Marcus, 2015)


The inspiration for this Broaday adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 psychological horror novel, Misery, is clearly the 1990 film that starred James Caan and Kathy Bates. Our favorite moments from the film are enacted in this story about the author of a series of novels who is rescued after a serious car accident by a former nurse. The unstable woman claims to be his biggest fan, becomes his captor and prison warden when she learns that he has killed off her favorite character. In this stage adaptation, the roles are taken by movies star Bruce Willis and the remarkable Laurie Metcalf.

This William Goldman script has been beautifully staged, under the direction of William Frears, with a set by David Korins and costumes by Ann Roth. Indeed, the show looks gorgeous, and placing the remote farmhouse of Ms. Metcalf’s character on a rotating stage serves to heighten the threatening instability of this spooky world.

The problem is that Mr. Willis never seems to be more than slightly vexed by a woman who tortures, maims, and threatens to kill him. On the day before the official opening, the actor was noticeably tentative on words, despite his reported use of an earpiece to prompt him.

It is rather extraordinary to watch Ms. Metcalf give an acting lesson in this play that makes us yearn for her exits and dread her entrances with rapt anticipation.

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