BWW Review: CRAZY MARY LINCOLN at Pallas Theatre Collective
New musicals are always a risky proposition for any theatre company, but Pallas Theatre Collective is rising to the challenge in a big way with its current production Crazy Mary Lincoln. The show is a product of the company's TableRead series, which puts the writers through a two year process of readings to work on their show before it gets to full production. In this case, the process paid off in spades.
Jan Levy Tranen(Lyricist/Librettist) and Jay Schwandt's(Composer/Librettist) story starts on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre, which turned Mary Lincoln (Melynda Burdette) from a loving wife and mother into a grieving widow in an instant. Her two sons Robert and Tad (Russell Silber and Brevan Collins) are just as grief stricken. Things continue to unravel for the Lincoln family as Mary is hit with huge debts and the collectors refuse to wait for his pension to come through from Congress. This prompts Mary to do some pretty desperate things, including selling off some of her dresses. However, in order to do so she uses another identity so as not to hurt the Lincoln name. Unfortunately, this does not work out is she is instantly recognizable. Some would then say she really starts to lose it at her son Robert's wedding to Mary Harlan (Erin Granfield), with an embarrassing story that involves a set of ripped trousers. The death of her son Tad didn't help her mental status either.
Two shady men convince Robert that his mom should be committed and, after much thought, he agrees to this idea. The trial is rigged against Mary and she is sent to Doctor Patterson's (Zach Brewster-Geisz) Bellevue Place - a sanitarium where Patterson wants you to believe he knows what is right for his patients. The fact that he won't allow Mary to be interviewed by any of the press says something different though. Many question whether or not Mary is crazy including a female lawyer named Myra Bradwell (Amy Conley). Mary enlists her help via a letter that she snuck out of the home by way of an orderly. Once Bradwell takes up Mary's cause, things start to improve and because I want you to see the show, this is where I am leaving things.
Pallas' Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chessum really understands how to let new work breathe. As opposed to presenting Crazy Mary Lincoln with gobs and gobs of scenery, she uses a few pieces of furniture and hand props. I can see this show being done big, but I like Chessum's version because without all the technical trappings you see how strong the material is.
Her direction gets the best out of her performers as well. Melynda Burdette, as Mary Todd Lincoln, gives a performance for the ages as the grieving widow whose sanity is questioned. With her strong acting abilities and superb vocals on songs like "Crazy Mary" and "Someday I'll Dance at Your Wedding," Burdette drives this show from beginning to end.
Other standout performances include Russell Silber as Robert Lincoln. His portrayal of a son who is looking to further his political career while losing touch with his own family is both interesting and moving. "Papa's Here" is a vocal highlight.
Fourteen-year-old Brevan Collins gives a strong performance as the supportive son Tad Lincoln. I enjoyed his vocal performance of "Family Tree" very much and I can see that Collins has a very promising career ahead of him.
Zach Brewster Geisz, as the hack physician Doctor Patterson, is as greasy as you can get. His production number "Beautiful Bellevue" - performed by Geisz and his patients - has a "Cell Block Tango" feel to it. It points out that Patterson does not necessarily have his heart in the right place when it comes to the care of his patients.
If your'e only accustomed to seeing Amy Conley behind a keyboard, you need to check out her wonderful performance as Myra Bradwell. Here is a performer who can do it all. She does so in this show.
I want to give a special shout out to nine-year-old Ayla Collins who does a stellar job as Mamie Linclon. The character almost dies within the course of the show. That is a lot for a young performer to tackle, but Collins' performance is very impressive.
The ensemble shines in such production numbers as "Pass the Hat for Mary Lincoln" and the hoedown-style "Lincoln's House is Falling Down." The energetic choreography is supplied by Madeline Koon.
Composer/Librettist Jay Schwandt also serves as Musical Director and pianist for the production. His score infuses many styles ranging from Civil War-based music themes to Les Miz. The score is very challenging to sing. to be sure.
Lyricist/Librettist Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics are intelligent and witty and move the story forward in grand style.
Maria Bissex does a nice job with the minimalist, but appropriate period costumes while Jason Aufdem-Birnke makes the most out of a smal,l but functional light plot.
All in all, Crazy Mary Lincoln is a new musical that went through the process and came out a winner. I applaud Pallas Theatre Collective for taking on new work and look forward to whatever its next project might be.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.