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A CurtainUp Review
Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln
By Elyse Sommer
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.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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