First Daughter Suite

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) One of the great joys of studying and reviewing musical theater cast recordings is tracking the growth and maturity of an artist. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChuisa has been writing scores for the theater since the 1990s, and his work has continued to develop and expand both musically and dramatically. His score for First Daughter Suite is a high-water mark in both regards. Whereas LaChiusa’s earlier works contained snatches of truncated melodies, this score is full of well-crafted, extended musical sequences.  A sort of sequel to of his previous musical First Lady Suite, this one portrays the daughters and wives of American Presidents from both political parties in four separate vignettes. The Nixons, Fords, Carters, Reagans, and Bushes are all present, played by a luminous, uniformly excellent, all-female cast. Barbara Walsh portrays Pat Nixon, Alison Fraser doubles as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan, and Mary Testa plays Barbara Bush, with Rachel Bay Jones and Caissie Levy doing fine character work in multiple roles. Testa, one of the theater’s most unique treasures, is particularly moving here. LaChiusa wrote his most probing and thought-provoking lyrics for her while searching for any crack in the armor of “Granite Granny” Barbara Bush; in describing the feeling of loss she experienced when her young daughter died of leukemia, Mrs. Bush sings the lyric “losing every atom of myself I thought I had” to heartbreaking effect. First Daughter Suite has been captured in its near entirety on this two-disc recording, which even includes a 22-minute track primarily consisting of dialogue between Alison Fraser’s Nancy Reagan and her estranged daughter, Patti Davis (Levy). Each scene represents not only the personal lives of these people but also marks the progression of America’s views on women during the latter part of the 20th century. If one finds LaChiusa’s early works difficult to enjoy, this score is a perfect opportunity to revisit his music and see how his style has evolved.  — Forrest Hutchinson