Carolann Page and Joy Lynn Matthews in
ASYLUM: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln
(© Carol Rosegg)
Carolann Page and Joy Lynn Matthews in
ASYLUM: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln
(© Carol Rosegg)
Michael John LaChuisa aside, First Ladies don't get much attention in musical theater. In fact, once their husbands are out of office, First Ladies don't get much attention, period. True, Betty Ford will always be remembered for her clinic, and as for Jackie Kennedy, she was surely the poster child for marrying well. And then there is Mary Todd Lincoln, who is best known, if she's known at all, for going crazy after old Abe's assassination. Or did she? ASYLUM: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln, the new musical at the York Theatre Company, provides a fresh take on the subject, and taken as an examination of women's rights circa 1875, it's fascinating. As a musical, however, it's a dud.

The story takes place 10 years after Lincoln's death. Mary (Carolann Page) has just been judged insane in a public court proceeding and is being placed in an asylum, where her son, Robert (Edwin Cahill), contrives to keep her locked away. Despite creators June Bingham and Carmel Owen's best efforts to spin as many conflicts as possible in order to create suspense, the show is not a lively musical drama, but rather a lumbering history lesson set to music. Moreover, director Fabrizio Melano has staged the show with far too many distancing devices, including scenes in which characters wear masks in the manner of a Greek chorus. Mary Todd Lincoln's deep interest in spiritualism (in the show, she has a crystal ball) might have inspired some exciting theatricality but that, too, is directed in the most mundane fashion.

One of the play's strongest features is Owen's music; there are some lovely melodies, but her lyrics are generally pedestrian. While they move the story forward, they do so neither beautifully nor cleverly. There are exceptions, such as the stirring memory of slavery, "The Run" performed by Mary's mulatto nurse, Delia (Joy Lynn Mathews) and the bitter, raging "I Remember Him," sung by the emotionally scarred Robert. But this is that rare musical in which one might say there is not enough book to support so many songs. Or maybe it's simply that the songs just aren't quite good enough.

The cast, which also includes Bertilla Baker, John Jellison, and Daniel Spiotta, does not rise above the material, in part, because the show ultimately defeats them. Fortunately, James Morgan's evocative set design gives the piece a chance to rise above the mundane. So do the orchestrations by Bob Goldstone; and the playing by the excellent band offers yet another opportunity to buoy the production.

It's great to learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln, but we'd like to feel a little something more as well. While no doubt, Asylum is a labor of love for its creators; unfortunately, this production just feels like labor.