Queen of the Mist
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 5, 2011
In 1901, on her 63rd birthday, Anna Edson Taylor made a very minor cultural impact when she rode Niagara Falls in a barrel. She hoped it would bring her fame and fortune—but what she ended up with could barely be called infamy. Her story is the subject of Michael John LaChiusa’s new musical Queen of the Mist, a production of the Transport Group, directed by Jack Cummings III.
Flaws included, Queen of the Mist has the potential to be another breathtaking piece in LaChiusa’s already fairly glorious canon, and Cummings’s stunning staging at the Gym at Judson is yet another gem for the still-on-a-roll Transport Group. Not only that, but it provides a tremendous vehicle for one of the great underappreciated divas of contemporary musical theater, Mary Testa.
Testa plays Anna, a woman who believes without question that she’s destined for greatness. After getting run out of various towns for owing money, and then being tossed out by her own sister, Anna finds herself in Niagara, where she decides to take the plunge, in a stunt she feels is destined to bring her great wealth and notoriety. Yet surviving the fall doesn’t really give her anything except the disappointment of knowing that she faded from public light almost as soon as it happened.
LaChiusa has crafted a sumptuous and just gorgeously haunting score (orchestrated for six players by Michael Starobin) and provided an intelligent and poignant book in between. Admittedly, there are some problems, and the piece could benefit from some judicious trims and cuts. Structurally, ending the first act with Anna’s climactic jump leads to a second half that is entirely falling action and denouement. As a result, Act Two meanders around the disappointments of the remainder of Anna’s life, including firing her manager Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky, in a career-best performance) and finding out that he ran off with her barrel and sent an imposter Anna (Theresa McCarthy) out on the vaudeville circuit.
The episodic nature of some of the scenes provides the actors with opportunities to have their particular moments, though they don’t really belong. An encounter at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in which Anna unknowingly encourages a conflicted Leon Czolgosz (Tally Sessions) to assassinate President William McKinley stops the first act dead in its tracks. An encounter between Anna and Carrie Nation (the otherwise wasted Julia Murney) similarly stops the second act. Conversely, a late-in-show meeting between an older Anna, now selling postcards at Niagara Falls, and a young off-to-war soldier (Stanley Bahorek) who, as a child, witnessed her jump, is downright devastating.
Actually, the whole last half hour is pretty damn devastating and unquestionably beautiful, as Testa releases the emotions of a lifetime on her way to death. Her performance is up there with the best I’ve ever seen—Patti LuPone’s Rose, Christine Ebersole’s Little Edie, Nathan Lane’s Max Bialystock—and I’m sure could stand up against musical theater’s best, as well.
With set designer Sandra Goldmark, Cummings’s use of the space is thrilling, with the raked, bleacher-liked seating giving the audience the unique opportunity to look down on the action, as though they themselves were peering over the Falls. Kathryn Rohe has provided the period costumes, and R. Lee Kennedy the evocative lighting. While you never see Anna go over the falls, choreographer Scott Rink has provided a bold solution involving the whole company (which also includes D.C. Anderson).
Queen of the Mist—and Testa’s performance—deserve to be seen by a wider audience. Hopefully, and with the right edits, this one will go very, very far.