FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE
WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY
ON YOUR FEET
All right, what do I mean by almost beyond criticism?
Very nearly all classic musicals, by which I mean the ones that are the mainstays of the literature, from the dawn of the art to the present, follow a larger than life character on a quest, like Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha; or at least very actively trying to adjust to a changing world that he’d prefer would stay as it was, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Now this is a wide-ranging template, and it includes many dozens of others, from John Adams in 1776 to Mama Rose in Gypsy to Max Bialystock in The Producers to Sweeney Todd—you could list them all day. There is a small number of others in the standard literature, but most of those are not produced or revived often, and only a handful of those recouped their investment. This doesn’t make them any less notable, nor even (necessarily) less worthy as works of art—indeed, I count a number of them (among them Pacific Overtures and the original Broadway Working) as among my favorites and the finest experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre.
Which is in part allied to the quality of the work, but also in large measure to who I was and my general outlook on the world when I saw them.
The point being this: When a musical veers off the two or three classic templates, the only thing a critic who truly knows the principles of the craft can honestly assess is the quality of the work, and very possibly, why the show, if it’s of sufficient quality, will engage some viewers and not others. What you can’t do is fault these shows for not being what they never intended to be; nor can you rate their ability to satisfy according to any objective standard, because by their very nature, they tend to defy guaranteed emotional catharsis. This is not to say that the best of these won’t offer a dramatic climax and can’t exhilarate—but they just don’t nail it for everyone, because they’ve deliberately taken a renegade path.
A constant renegade is Michael John La Chiusa, who shows no signs of wandering off the side road anytime soon, represented currently at the Public Theatre with his First Daughter Suite, a thematic sequel to his First Lady Suite, which presented speculative portraits of four Presidential White House First Ladies. Like its forerunner, this presents a quartet of one acts (vignettes if you like), although its title is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the show is about the interaction of presidential daughters with their mothers. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the mothers remain the richest and most layered characters, the daughters tending toward being painted in broader stokes.
• The 1972 wedding of Tricia Nixon (Betsy Morgan) as older sister Julie (Cassie Levy) abets and mother Pat (Barbara Walsh) oversees, with the spectre of her mother in law (Theresa McCarthy) hovering, invisible to all but Pat.
• A child’s dream of high seas adventure and greatness and not being lost in the shuffle; the time is 1980, the dreamer is Amy Carter (Carly Tamer), and the supporting players are her predecessor Susan Ford (Morgan) and their two moms, Betty Ford (Alison Fraser) and Rosalyn Carter (Rachel Bay Jones).
• A 1986 visit by volatile Patti Davis (Levy) to her coolly calculating mother Nancy (Fraser), in which she underestimates the servant by the pool (Anita Castelo).
• A confrontation between Barbara Bush (Mary Testa)—sorely disappointed and withdrawing even further from her mediocre son George, as his administration is in its dying throes, retreating into the idealized memory of her dead daughter Robin (McCarthy)—and her daughter-in-law and current first lady, Laura (Jones), for whom the fire of loyalty and supportiveness still burn, calm but unwavering.
Four playlets means starting the momentum four times; and these being character profiles and situational snapshots rather than plotted narratives, there are a good many feelings expressed and ideas exchanged between characters who are essentially (and often by definition of their function as the women behind, and born of, the offstage patriarch with the power) passive. Or active only in ways that are clear retroactively. None of this is meant as criticism; I mean it as neutral description, and I’ll add that I wasn’t bored for a minute. Though I know a number who have been. We’re in the realm of the Art House musical here, and as I say, it’s not everybody’s cup of acquired taste.
Per usual, Mr. LaChiusa occasionally grabs at familiar song tropes for soundbyte editorial comment by way of music, but for the most part he avoids both pastiche and familiar song forms; not only won’t you find standard structures here, you’ll find a great deal of through-composition (spoken dialogue shows up, though—almost all of it in the second act, where the tone shifts to more serious subject matter, or at least more serious delivery). And the music is of a very high order, as are the deft and literate lyrics.
The cast is uniformly excellent and the direction by Kirsten Sanderson is in league with the piece’s sensibility and tone.
Because it’s in one of the old reliable musical theatre venues of NYC and because LaChiusa himself is a musical theatre baby, First Daughter Suite is almost reflexively classified as a musical. But in truth, it’s much more correctly identified as a contemporary opera (despite the act two dialogue), and serves as a benchmark for how artisans of contemporary opera might ply their trade if they actually knew what the hell they were doing.
Songbird comes disguised as a musical without ever quite identifying itself as one, and that technicality is correct, for it is absolutely, 100% a play with music. What defines the distinction is that if you lifted away the entire score, the play itself would still make sense. Ironically, though, it needs songs—not necessarily those songs, just songs somewhat like them—to live up to its mandate. For what it seeks to deliver is Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, transplanted to the world of contemporary country music. There’s no specific locale given, but the gathering bar and its stage are stand-ins for the big house and the improvised theatre in the woods. The domineering self-absorbed, aging actress is domineering, self absorbed country singer Tammy Tripp (Kate Baldwin) on the downslide of her chart-bustin’ career. The son whose possible talents she dismisses is not a poet-playwright, but Dean (Adam Cochran) a songwriter-performer whop would hope to follow in her footsteps. And etc. down the line, each of Chekhov’s characters having his or her Honky Tonk parallel.
The script by Michael Kimmel, delineates all this admirably without any sense of winking at the audience, irony or camp; humor is endemic to behavior, just as in Chekhov. And he doesn’t soft-pedal the darker aspects. The songs, music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard, are hooky, catchy, appealing country fare—but they’re presented as “source songs”: songs consciously acknowledged by the characters to be songs, that they perform for each other as pre-written songs they know. And yes, of course, they’re reflections of mood, tone, sometimes emotional state, but what they are not is spontaneous character expression that takes over from speech in the manner of aside or soliloquy. Not that I’d wish it, but you could remove Ms. Pritchard’s songs and swap in others of like quality that explore the same generic themes, and the play would land as effectively.
How effectively does it land? I think that may depend on your familiarity with the Chekhov play. If you’re clocking the parallels, you get on the ride more quickly. If you can’t, it has a meandering start, and its initial focus seems to spawl because neither in character action nor in articulated dramatic theme does it define itself right at the top, which musicals must do. The best one can say is that under the direction of JV Mercanti, it’s very well done, and the cast, also including mainstays like Erin Dilly and Bob Stillman, among others, delivers with great conviction and consummate skill.
Despite its title, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War, is not musical theatre camp or political-revue satire. It is, rather, a dark political comedy on the order of Doctor Strangelove, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s based on an unproduced screenplay of the same title (the title being a conscious homage to Strangelove) by J.T. Allen which dramatizes the true series of chain-of-command fuckups, during the George Bush administration, that started a war based on false evidence. It’s a story of ambition vs principle vs accountability. As presented sort of in the round at the Actors Temple, the show begins by having its cast members insinuate themselves into the audience (almost unobtrusively, if you’re not really alert), and before you know it, you’re in an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support group, whose members start by saying “I’m [name] and I started the Iraq War.” And from there an accumulation of flashbacks tell the story.
As a piece of political theatre, I honestly believe it’s potentially got enough going for it to stand alongside the best of David Hare, Richard Nelson or Caryl Churchill. As a musical…well, its endemic renegade aspects are what they are. There aren’t characters you root for or even against, particularly. They’re cogs in a flawed machine; at their best, they fascinate, but they don’t trigger meaningful empathy. Also there’s no one main character; just a number of players in a gestalt of bad decision-making leading to failure. And when the show begins, we know the outcome is failure (the suspense is in following the chain); and unlike the story’s spiritual paradigm, Doctor Strangelove, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? doesn’t have opposing forces that can be personified. We don’t see, for example anything like the mild-mannered British Colonel Mandrake trapped in an office at Burpelson U.S. Air Force Base trying to manage the madman in command—paranoid schizophrenic General Jack Ripper, who has sent bombardiers jetting toward Russian airspace to deliver a nuclear payload—who is the only person on earth who can issue an otherwise unobtainable recall code; in Who’s Your Baghdaddy? there’s the occasional obstacle to be overcome, like red tape; or to be finessed, like a questionable informant known as Curveball [also the original title of the screenplay]; but in the book, co-written by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo, there’s no visible antagonist. All of which makes the show more ideology-driven than character-based.
As if to put this into even higher relief, the songs in the score (music by Pailet, lyrics by Penedo) are perforce mostly about ideology, procedure, image and perception. Very few are a straight ahead expression of self, and fewer in a way that lets the audience groove on an emotional state. This is Brechtian stuff for the new millennium; hipper and not quite alienating—we’re not being accused of anything and we’re allowed to draw our own moral conclusions—but it nonetheless maintains what I can best describe as a hot distance. And, though Penedo is not an ungifted lyricist, he doesn’t know how to deal out patter—and there’s a lot of it in this show, and a lot of it is supposed to clue you into what’s going on—in such away that first-hearing clarity is keeping even pace with speed; subsequently there are a number of moments (mostly in the first act) where you’re not entirely sure what’s happening, and you have to wait for further context to understand what you were theoretically just told. And every time a musical falls prey to that hiccup, it dies a little death. So Who’s Your Baghdaddy is highly worthwhile, especially in its particular niche; but there’s work yet to be done. Meanwhile there’s smart work by Pailet as director, Misha Shields as choreographer and the eight-member cast—Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, Brandon Espinoza, Olli Haaskivi, Nehal Joshi, Claire Neumann and Larisa Olenik—most of whom were news to me, all of whom are as accomplished and charismatic as any of the current “inner circle” favorites on the scene.
There's been a big deal and buzz about Futurity from Ars Nova, downtown and Far East at the Connolly, but your tolerance for this one depends entirely upon your tolerance for a new millennium variation on counterculture youth's portrayal of establishment ills.
Here’s the boilerplate: “Two people try to imagine their way out of impossible circumstances in [this] avant-Americana musical by indie band The Lisps. Julian [co-author César Alvarez] is a Civil War soldier dreaming of a technological utopia. Ada [Sammy Tunis, a female if that’s not clear from her character’s name] is a mathematical genius thousands of miles away. Together, they’re going to invent a machine to end one of the darkest periods in our history. An electrifying concert-story featuring an army of musicians.” With, I might add, an introduction and periodic interludes in which the two leads step out of character and indulge in semi-scripted banter about truth vs dramatization in musical theatre, like refugees from a grad program.
The music tends toward folksy in genre and monotonous in melody (the writers are bewilderingly fond of long stretches of patter that favor full phrases of multiple syllables on the same one or two notes); and the story is so slender it barely develops beyond the premise. So here too, the point of investment is not really character, but in whether human nature can ever be wrangled to overcome its self-destructive policies and practices.
have to be charmed by it all to find it worthwhile. I wasn't—I just don’t
have the patience for this kind of thing—but that doesn't negate the many who have been. Personally, I’ve been around too long and I’ve
seen too many things like this, and they're always touted as a fresh and new and they never
truly are; Futurity could be time-capsule
transferred to the late ‘60s and I swear to you, audiences would never actually
smell the future it came from. All that said,
being charmed by it, no matter how long you've been around, is a perfectly valid reaction: There’s a certain kind of
renegade out-of-the-box experimentation that catches fire in its time but is far too idiosyncratic to ever
affect the development of musical theatre thereafter as a form, nor engenders meaningful,
lasting or sometimes any emulation;
and thus once it closes, it fades from general memory, and thus has absolutely no
meaning for coming generations who haven’t
even been born yet. Thus in turn,
when those succeeding generations
are provoked or stumble into the same desire to rebel and shed a social light,
well…the only thing that changes a little is the psychological awareness of the era; there’s a little cumulative
momentum to that, built into the
cultural zeitgeist. and it’s a phenomenon of pop culture that
succeeding generations continually rediscover/reinvent (pick one) these
“rebellious” forays into social relevance; and their contemporary audiences
experience them as virgin territory. And why wouldn’t they? The lasting
literature has given them no context to experience them otherwise. Additionally, the energy of youth can be its own freshness
for some who have been around long enough to
remember. And do so with vicarious nostalgia. That's yet another way of growing older. And I wouldn't say it nay.
Virgin territory is literally the subject matter of Northern Daughter, a touring-and-bookable show, written and performed by Donna Creighton, who accompanies herself on guitar (script co-written by Louise Fagan); the show is a not-so-semi autobiographical import from up North that made a one-performance appearance at the United Solo Theatre Festival and has been invited to return next year, for being, among other things, uniquely Canadian. Having spent much time working there, I can attest that it is that, though my time was confined to cities, and Ms. Creighton’s 47 minute, anecdotal odyssey is about the existence of a girl named Josephine, growing into a young woman, in the Northern backwoods. It’s about the hardship, the loneliness, the isolation, the finding of heart, humor and humanity where you can—and the ever-growing spirit that eventually leads to the biggest strength of all…the strength to leave. With a catchy, hooky musical vocabulary drawn from folk idioms—country, but not quite like American country (we’re in the tradition of Stan Rogers here)—Northern Daughter is not a “trained” musical, and I’m not sure it would benefit from having been so. This is a rare instance in which I would concede that the rawness of its setting and story is a perfect justification (and metaphor) for the impulsive and compulsive nature of its song score. Which is not to say there isn’t a good deal of sophistication in the show’s construction; but Ms. Creighton and Ms. Fagan are too smart to threaten verisimilitude by making you notice it. Like the show’s heroine, who is at once extroverted and modest, it insinuates rather than insists; and like the backwoods existence, it casts a seductive yet unsentimental spell.
In a certain sense, On Your Feet doesn’t quite belong in this discussion, because it’s not that renegade at all; but it’s still somewhat off-template, for being a jukebox book musical. It falls into the subgenre of shows like Jersey Boys and Beautiful, being a musicalized bio of a pop song artist and her collaborator-producer husband, with the score being fashioned out of their catalog of recordings. Per usual, the songs are punctuation and commentary, primarily appearing as source songs. In this case, the subjects are Emilio and Gloria Estafan (Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe).
I wish I had something substantial to say about this one, but it is what it is, and as such, it’s delivered with crowd-pleasing polish with energetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo and direction by Jerry Mitchell. There’s a fine cast and lots of eye candy in the production values.
On Your Feet isn’t quite as dramatically compelling as the other two shows I mentioned—there’s a degree of family drama between Gloria and her mom (Andréa Burns), and a mild touch of Act Two marital discord under the stress of Gloria recovering from her near-fatal car accident—but otherwise it’s a story, told shorthand, about a devoted couple creatively battling prejudice in the recording industry that initially sought to keep them confined to the Latin box, and didn’t see their potential for mainstream crossover. (Well, the Eastefans showed them a thing or two. The end.) But that’s okay. The story is told shorthand, so it speeds along, and if it seems dramatically slender, all the show biz dazzle compensates.
Like all the other pieces discussed here, if it sounds like the kind of thing you’d go for, it will be.
possibly amusing postscript. As I was watching the show and clocking not the
songs, but the book in my inner-ear, I
thought, boy, this sorta has the feel and the rhythm of the book for The
Bodyguard (we never saw that one in the
States; it was a West End production, an adaptation of the Whitney
Houston-Kevin Costner thriller, whose score was plundered from the Houston song
catalog). At intermission I looked at the program bio for Alexander
Dinelaris—and sure enough. Same librettist. I have to give a
musical bookwriter props when I can
recognize him (for all the right reasons) from his style.
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