Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln

Politics, Mr. Wilkie, is the only vocation where a lady can express rage and not be condemned. Politics, Mr. Wilkie, is a form of war: someone wins, someone loses, and the innocent suffer.--- Mary Lincoln to the newspaper editor interviewing her for a story aimed at freeing her from her confinement to a private asylum for troubled ladies.

Carolann Page & Joy Lynn Matthews (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ten years after the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Mary Todd Lincoln's only remaining son, Robert, had her committed to an asylum for her erratic behavior. Robert, a lawyer like his martyred father, was apparently willing to sacrifice his mother's welfare to the aims of his martyred father's Republican party enemies and his own ambition. As depicted in the York Theatre's new musical, Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln, Robert was also eaten up with rage and resentment about growing up with a father who put the demands of his office before building a relationship with him as well as what he perceived as neglect on his mother's part.

As with everything the York Theatre Company does, this world premiere of a work that's been in development for a decade has much to recommend it. Composer-lyricist Carmel Owen has created a mix of operatic and melodic lighter numbers. While my use of the term operatic may evoke visions of a dissonant, sung-through piece, quite the contrary is true. Much of the music is tuneful and June Bingham's book has so much dialogue that there are stretches where it seems more a play than a musical.

It would have been hard to fit in all the historical information without big chunks of spoken dialogue given the extensive historical information about this period when the president's widow enlisted Chicago legal journal editor Myra Bradwell to help her regain her freedom; especially since this musical incorporates information from recently found letters that shed new light on the widely accepted view that Mrs. Lincoln did indeed exhibit totally irrational personality traits)

High on the show's plus side is some fine singing by Carolann Page in the leading role and an especially noteworthy performance by Joy Lynn Matthews as Mary Lincoln's sympathetic nurse, a former Georgia slave named Delia. There are other assets. For starters, there's James Morgan's attractive and smartly functional set, with door-sized picture frames backing the Victorian style furnishings of Mary's sitting room in Doctor Patterson's private asylum in Batavia, Illinois. These frames ease entrances and exits and have pictures of the presidential days that that are never far from Mary's mind, projected on scrims. Bob Goldstone's orchestrations for the three piece band (piano, violin and viola) are excellent.

Despite its interesting slice-of-history story line, the characters never really tug at your emotions and Asylum's mix of musical styles often seem at odds with each other. There are also flaws in casting and direction. While I have no problem with having actors play several parts, I never quite adjusted to having John Jellison switch from Dr. Patterson to Lincoln. Considering the requirements for someone who can act as well as sing, I wouldn't expect a Lincoln look-alike but with Edwin Cahill looking as if he might indeed be Lincoln's son, one wonders if Jellison might not at least have sported a beard or some other Lincolnesque physical attributes. But then director Fabrizio Melano's use of masks to differentiate the ensemble's role as a chorus comes off as gimmicky. Another directorial problem is that too often, when one performer sings a solo, the director allows the one who's not singing to just stand there.

This episode in Mary Lincoln's life reminded me of another Washington wife, Martha Mitchell, who as the Watergate scandal whistle blower ran afoul of the powers that be in the Republican party. A new non musical play about Mitchell that premiered at Shakespeare & Company this summer (Martha Mitchell Calling) was consistently brisk and entertaining, much more so than a play on the same subject seen a few season's back at the Public Theater (Dirty Tricks). Clearly dramatizing history is not an easy task and musicalizing it, is even more challenging. The York Theatre is to be commended for supporting June Bigham and Carmel Owen's effort to do so with this handsome production.

Book by June Bingham
Music and Lyrics by Carmel Owen
Directed by. Fabrizio Melano
Cast (In Order of Appearance): Voice of Young Robert/ Ansel Elgort; Mary Lincoln/ Carolann Page; Robert Lincoln / Edwin Cahill; Doctor Patterson & Lincoln/ John Jellison; Delia/ Joy Lynn Matthews; Myra Bradwcll /Bertilla Baker; Franc Wilkie / Daniel Spiotta
Costumes: Terese Wadden
Lights: Chris Robinson
Wig Design: Erin Kennedy Lunsford
Musical Supervision: Matt Castle
Orchestra: Piano/ Bob Goldstone, Violin / Joe Brent, Cello/ Tara Chambersm Piano Alternate /Danny Percefull Running Time: Approximately 2 houts, including an intermission.
York Theatre at Saint Peter's (54th Street (East of Lexington Avenue) SmartTix 212-868-4444

From 9/05/06 to 10/01/06; opening 9/14/06.
Tickets, $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 13th performance

Musical Numbers
Act One
    Act I
  • Mother I Need You/ Robert, age 10
  • A National Disgrace. Ensemble
  • Dear Mr. Lincoln / Mary
  • Mother I Need You)(Reprise)/ Robert
  • This Is The Solution / Robert & Mary
  • Doctor /Mary & Dr. Patterson
  • Crystal Wisdom/ Mary
  • I Remember Him/ Robert
  • The Run / Delia
  • Lincoln Waltz/ Mary & Lincoln
  • Warm Mist/ Mary
  • Oregon Mary & Lincoln
  • The Letter/Mary
Act Two
  • What A Story/Myra & Ensemble
  • Looking At You/ Mary & Myra
  • It Won't Be Long Now / Mary
  • What A Story (Reprise)/Wilkie, Myra & Ensemble
  • Easy For You To Be So Noble / Robert
  • Rockabye Child Jesus /Delia
  • Why Robert, Why /Mary & Robert
  • It Won't Be Long Now (Reprise)/Mary
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