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'First Daughter Suite' review: Peculiar musical

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy in

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy in "First Daughter Suite," a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Kirsten Sanderson, running at The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

Twenty-two years ago, the young Michael John LaChiusa burst onto the musical scene as a gifted triple-threat-composer, lyricist and author with a beguiling, poignant and odd chamber musical about presidents' wives called "First Lady Suite."

After a career that has included such daring and off-center works as "Hello Again" and "The Wild Party," LaChiusa is back where his debut show began at the Public Theater with a similarly inventive and peculiar companion piece, "First Daughter Suite." More musically mature but no less audacious, this quartet of playlets about the girls in the White House -- and their mothers and their grandmothers -- is both a satirical and tender tribute to the parallel universe of history in, as Pat Nixon (Barbara Walsh) sings, "a house that will never be a home."

Except for "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure," which traps us for too long in the musical-comedy absurdity of a 12-year-old's dream, the brief pieces enchant and inform with an eclectic mix of post-Sondheim modernism, bluesy riffs and swingy styles that are very much his own. Imaginatively directed by Kirsten Sanderson, the terrific nine-woman cast eerily suggests, with only the wittiest bits of caricature, Betty Ford/Nancy Reagan (Alison Fraser), Rosalynn Carter / Laura Bush (Rachel Bay Jones), Julie Nixon/Patti Davis (Caissie Levy), Barbara Bush (Mary Testa).

Separately, all have rich, expressive voices that, together, gleam in unusually stirring dramatic blends. In LaChiusa's deftly researched scenes, history makes a little wistful sense, too.

WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

INFO $65; 212-967-7555;

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