By Jennifer Mustoe
Opening the Creekside Theatre Fest, First Daughter Suite brings its enthusiastic audience stories from the White House in years past set to music. Does this sound unusual? Well, it is an unusual and delightful piece that will keep you thinking for some time. First Daughter Suite tells the stories, with a little fiction tossed in, about the First Ladies and First daughters from the Richard Nixon era to the George W. Bush era. First Daughter Suite is almost entirely sung, and the players in this show are brilliant in their portrayals of these world-famous, strong women.
First Daughter Suite has all actresses sing “Opening” on the lovely The Black Box at Liahona Theater for the Community stage. Each actress looked enough like the person they were playing and I wondered, what will these women tell me? I was surprised and have continued to think of the stories we were told since.
Andrea Chapman as Patricia Nixon (wife of Richard Nixon) enters the stage with Mary Jane Smith as Hannah Milhaus Nixon, and joined by Katie Rowley as Tricia Nixon and Addie Wray Scott as Julie Nixon. This vignette of songs is funny, enlightening (for instance, Hannah, Nixon’s mother used the Quaker “thee”), and sometimes too true to be humorous. Pat Nixon had a lot on her plate, from her sparring daughters, to her extremely condescending mother-in-law, to her soon to be impeached husband and Chapman shares all these warring emotions with her angelic voice and convincing acting talent. All these actresses sing beautifully and are completely believable as a “typical” family. Rowley as Tricia and Scott as Julie are hilarious and so believable as two sisters who clearly love each other but also have significant resentment and a willingness to come to physical blows at one point. And Smith as the witchy, judgmental Hannah is someone we love to hate. I was sorry to see their scene end.
The Ford era brings Heidi Mendez Harrison as the alcohol swilling Betty Ford. Harrison’s comedic ability and willingness to be the drunken, spunky, dancing queen First Lady is a sight to behold. Joleah Long as Susan Ford has a delicious role as the bratty teen daughter, but as Isabella Ford as Amy Carter and Allison Books as Rosalyn Carter enter, these four women show their stuff as performers. Long’s progression from “good” to “bad” shows her talent. And Ford as Amy is truly remarkable. Books is very believable as the southern lady Carter. All four women perform “Fabulous Dream Adventure”, “Iran”, and “Reprises” and honestly, the stories these songs tell are out of this world, but bring the history of the time rather starkly into the space and into our faces.
Act Two brings us songs and stories through the George W. Bush presidency. Rowley appears this time as Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. The transformation Rowley makes from whiny, feisty bride-to-be Tricia Nixon to snarly, angry, resentment-filled Davis shows this actress’s acting chops. Davis drips with the angst of loving and hating her mother. It’s painful to watch but we can’t look away. Merilee Van Wagenen as Nancy Reagan is so very very good, one would think we were watching Nancy reincarnated on a stage in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Interestingly, Nancy has only one sung line and the rest spoken. This makes sense to me, because her role demands a quiet, dignified voice that drips with a deep anger that Nancy tries to hide. A complex role and Van Wagenen sails through it convincingly. And honestly, she is Nancy’s doppelgänger and I think this actress should just head straight to Hollywood and be a celebrity lookalike. Harrison appears as Anita Costello in this act, and again, shows an actress’s talent to be two completely different characters in one play.
The final scene involves the women in George W. Bush’s White House. Smith plays Robin Bush, daughter of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush who died at the age of 3 from leukemia. I barely got through this scene. The two women sing to one another about their day together, celebrated once a year on the anniversary of Robin’s death. Smith’s voice is other worldly and her sorrow at their day being ruined so Barbara can go campaign for her son brings to light the painful sacrifices all these women have made to support their husbands/fathers as they pursue becoming president. And what Barbara and her husband did the day after Robin died–well, I won’t tell you, and you can Wiki it if you want. But come see the show instead. This vignette in First Daughter Suite almost cut my heart out, in a good way. Having lost a child of my own, though he was an adult, is something one never truly recovers from and this storyline cut close to the bone.
Chapman appears again, this time as Laura Bush and nails it. Her defense of her husband and her somewhat difficult relationship with mother-in-law Barbara Bush, played by Jayne Luke who also directed First Daughter Suite is fun to watch. Barbara is a complex character, defending her husband and eluding to the problems she and her husband struggled with. Barbara is very judgmental and disappointed with her son George W. and fiercely loyal to her husband George H.W.. Both women defend their husbands, Laura by acknowledging her husband’s faults and need of her. Barbara represents herself as a woman who has created a conscious denial so she can support her husband in an almost fantasy world existence when he is with her. These two totally different personalities are a delight to watch.
Luke uses a deft and caring hand in her direction of the show. I loved watching an all-female cast–it is effective and empowering. Music by Maren Hansen and Zach Hansen is wonderful–the music (Book and Music by Michael John LaChuisa) is haunting and almost completely constant, very reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim. This is a light opera in that there is only one character who speaks. Sound Design by M. Hansen and Zac Bringhurst, Light Design by Bringhurst, Serena Ihrig as Tech Crew, and Set Design by Brian Hadfield create an intimate feel and look. Costume Design is by the actresses themselves, and the amazing Wig Design by Books completes this production’s successful experience for audience members.
The themes in First Daughter Suite are similar to each particular president. It seems that all men had difficult mothers, and all the daughters also struggled with their mothers. All the mothers struggled in one way or another with their daughters and daughters-in-law. What I liked about this is we ALL struggle with our families in one way or another and it’s a lifelong process to find a way to be happy and peaceful within the construct of intimate family relationships. One other universal theme is that even though these men were president, a job only 46 men have had, never felt like they had “made it”, were worried about being popular enough, and always striving to do more and be more. They all, according to this play, had an idea they were never enough. Because I believe we all struggle with these doubts but on a much smaller stage rather than headlining these doubts to the entire world, it brought me a feeling that maybe we’re all more the same than we are different.
My friend who accompanied me to First Daughter Suite and I both felt like the minute we got home, we’d do some research to see what was really true in this story. But I also came away with one, no one will ever really know what happened or happens in the White House, two, it doesn’t always matter, and three, we’re all human, from the president of the United States, a CEO of a non-profit (me), and any- and everyone.
First Daughter Suite is a thought-provoking and entertaining musical about a topic that is interesting, powerful, and often very funny. I’d recommend it for teens and up, or younger if they’re history buffs.
Creekside Theatre Fest presents First Daughter Suite, Book and Music by Michael John LaChuisa.
Liahona Preparatory Academy, 2464 W 450 S Pleasant Grove, Utah 84062
June 19, 24, 26-28, 2023 8:00 PM
Tickets: Adult $20, Child/Senior $15
Creekside Theatre Fest Facebook Page
Photo credit: Harmony Brown and Jordan Long