“There is greatness in me,” Anna Edson Taylor, the titular character of Michael John LaChiusa’s latest musical, Queen of the Mist, proclaims in the show’s opening moments. Portraying the life and times of Ms. Edson Taylor, best known as the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive, Mr. LaChiusa’s musical, produced by Transport Group Theatre Company in the Gym at Judson, seeks to plumb its subject’s greatness and madness in seemingly equal quantities.
Before a thorough analysis of Queen of the Mist can be carried out, the central performance of stage veteran Mary Testa must be acknowledged; her presence here is central to the success of the musical as a whole to the point where, at moments over the course of the evening, it’s difficult to parse whether the show ultimately succeeds on her back or as a result of Mr. LaChiusa’s formidable but occasionally overwrought writing.
No stranger to LaChiusa’s work (she’s also performed in Marie Christine and See What I Wanna See), Testa, here adorned (appropriately so) in mostly humble, conservative costumes, makes mincemeat of an audience as she tears through the show’s difficult score and a number of showy monologues LaChiusa has crafted for his leading lady. With her inordinately wide-eyed glare, Testa is able to pull an audience in whether it’s in the spirit of mayhem or martyrdom – both are essential parts of Ms. Edson Taylor’s character.
The musical begins as Ms. Edson Taylor’s life takes a downward dip. In several towns, she wears out her welcome, renting rooms to give private music, etiquette, and dancing lessons for which she can’t quite afford the rent. After events leave her penniless, she heads to Auburn, New York to be with her more conservative sister Jane (Theresa McCarthy).
Pressured by Jane’s husband to leave their home, Anna hops the next train to Niagara Falls and, in an effort to discover her greatness, hatches a plan to plunge over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel and survive after becoming fixated with improving upon the thwarted efforts of several of her forerunners. She hires a manager, Frank Russell (the smarmy, excellent Andrew Samonsky) and seeks to make a name for herself – not, she insists, because of fame or money, but because of her desire to make something of herself (though she certainly doesn’t deny she stands to earn something in the balance).
The first act of the musical focuses on the lead up to Anna’s “stunt” at the Falls – the preparations and betrayals. The second act finds Anna on the down-and-out. Having betrayed her manager, she finds herself in turn betrayed when he tours the vaudeville circuit with an impostor using her name. She attempts to embark on a lecture tour, eventually finding herself sharing a bill with temperance advocate Carrie Nation (Julia Murney), who condemns her as a flash in the pan – a perpetrator of stunts rather than an advocate for any real social change.
As the musical’s second half unfolds, the primary weakness of Queen of the Mist reveals itself – namely that Ms. Edson Taylor, as fascinating as she can be, is herself an enigma. There is indeed greatness in her, but her motivations are so mixed up and ever-changing that it’s difficult to ever quite get a handle on her – she’s about as elusive as the show’s titular mist.
One of Mr. LaChiusa’s shortcomings, to my mind, has been the fact that he tackles both score and libretto for his musicals. He’s certainly an above-average writer of dialogue, but perhaps a librettist’s taming hand and influence might help him hone his structure. Though the musical’s first act is taut and forward-moving, LaChiusa spends much of the second half seeking to place Ms. Edson Taylor’s life in context; ultimately the writing becomes mired in imagery rather than plot, and the forward momentum earned early on suffers as a result.
Over the course of the second act, a litany of characters question Anna – “What did it feel like?” they ask, claiming that, for all the talking she’s done, Anna has never truly described how it feels to go over the brink and survive. When we finally receive her sung reply, it’s tremendously beautiful musically but – given the tremendous run-up – ultimately underwhelming.
There are lovely motifs throughout – particularly involving a tiger Anna and her sister encountered in their youths – and plenty of gorgeous music (the show’s score contains many of Mr. LaChiusa’s soaring, intelligent signatures with an American pastiche twist not unlike that of Stephen Sondheim’s latest, Road Show), but what’s on display here is ultimately not as impressive as its heroine’s proclamations (and its leading lady). As fluidly and simply directed by Jack Cummings III, Queen of the Mist is smarter than most musicals and certainly more musically engaging; nonetheless, it’s a beautifully flawed work. There is greatness in it, but it, as a whole, is above average, not great.