A musical Mary Todd Lincoln in the insane asylum? From a pair of apparent professional novices — one the 87-year-old widow of a nine-term U.S. congressman — who have labored over the opus for nine years? “Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln” has a certain cachet, all right. It turns out the York Theater Company’s new chamber musical is considerably more interesting than it sounds, although second-act trouble scuttles the adventurous work of the first.
Robert Lincoln did, indeed, have his high-strung mother committed to Bellevue — an Illinois sanitarium, not the infamous New York site — in 1875. June Bingham (book) and Carmel Owen (music and lyrics) hypothesize that with the Republican Party in disarray, young Mr. Lincoln was angling for the 1876 presidential nomination himself. So he locks away his crystal ball-toting mama — in some circles a laughing stock — and demands her $50,000 in bonds (hidden in her petticoats) to finance his expenses.
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The historical accuracy of all this is unclear, although by the time “Asylum” winds down, the characterizations and motivations seem to come not from the history books but from Dramaturgy 101.
The good news first: The opening stanza, which deals with Mrs. Lincoln’s incarceration, manages to hold audience interest. Owen works in near-operatic style, providing music that’s interesting at almost every turn — well performed by a piano-cello-violin combo, with arrangements that keep us listening intently.
Playing Mary Lincoln, Carolann Page does much of the singing, and she’s quite good in a rather heavy role. Page has a raft of stage and opera credentials, including turns as first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt (in Michael John LaChiusa’s “First Lady Suite”) and Pat Nixon (in John Adam’s “Nixon in China”).
It’s in the second act, concerning Mary’s rescue, that the authors get into trouble as musical comedy rears its head. In barrels Myra Bradwell (Bertilla Baker), identified as America’s first women lawyer (circa 1875) but played like an Upper East Side real estate agent circa 2000.
Opening the act is a quintet on how to save poor Mary, with the doubling actors in masks, that’s jarringly out of place with what has preceded it and unfortunately sets the tone for what’s to follow.
The most engrossing stretch of the short second act — an interview between Mary and a newspaper reporter — is entirely spoken, without music.
Joy Lynn Matthews, as the former Georgia slave-turned-asylum attendant Delia, demonstrates strong support in voice and acting, but the rest of the cast is uneven. Director Fabrizio Melano comes from the opera world, which may account for some mighty over-the-top acting.
Baker presumably acts as directed, but her unrestrained portrayal is jarring. So too is Edwin Cahill as Robert. When he is good (as in well behaved), he does fine, handling his mixture of dialogue and song very well. But when he turns bad, you can almost see him twirl his invisible mustache in villainous glee — that’s when he’s not sulking like Richard Nixon. (Or is it Dick Cheney?)
Designer (and York artistic director) James Morgan has provided an ingenious setting, utilizing five large picture frames featuring over-life-sized reproductions (on scrim) of famous Lincoln family portraits. The stock period costumes are not as clever.
Bob Goldstone serves as musical director and arranger, presumably sharing credit with the composer for the interesting accompaniment from the pit.
Over the last nine years, the authors studiously workshopped the production in the living rooms of society matrons, picking up checks to help with development along the way. The program offers “special thanks” to no less than 60 of them, including names that sound like they’d fit right in at Edie Beale’s Grey Gardens engagement party.
Interviews and press materials reveal the authors developed and vastly improved “Asylum” over the years. It seems, though, that they never quite got around to the second act.