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Queen of the Mist

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mary Testa with Julia Murney, Theresa McCarthy, DC Anderson, and Stanley Bahorek in the background.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Fame is a puzzling thing, and Michael John LaChiusa's new theatrical meditation on it, Queen of the Mist, is a puzzling musical. Don't misunderstand: This doesn't mean that this examination of Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, is weird, incomplete, or difficult to understand—it's not. But it poses a number of questions that so overlap, interlock, and refract that you may wonder, as Taylor undoubtedly did, whether you'll drown in it all, and it makes you wait until its final seconds to obtain the answers you crave.

So despite containing some of LaChiusa's most absorbing writing, a handsome production at the Gym at Judson under the auspices of Transport Group, and an astonishingly committed and risk-taking central performance by Mary Testa, this is not a show for everyone. What this show is, however, is smart, beguiling, and most of all different, exactly the kind of thing both LaChiusa and Transport Group Artistic Director Jack Cummings III, who also directs, have spent much of their careers leading us to expect. The result is LaChiusa and Cummings's most rewarding collaboration yet, and one of the most fascinating new musicals New York has seen in several seasons.

But it starts out small. When we first meet the middle-aged Anna (Testa) in the early 1900s, she's living half a step above homelessness in the Midwest, barely outrunning her creditors, yet still insists in song that "There Is Greatness in Me." Over the two and a half hours that follow, Anna does everything she can to prove that she's right, and the world does everything it can to prove that she's wrong and is actually just like everyone else. Anna's dual battles against the global onslaught of mediocrity and her predilection toward poverty collide when she conceives her greatest scheme, and apparently a unique one: to go over the Falls and live.

Mary Testa and Andrew Samonsky.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"Has no one considered this before?", she asks, utterly without irony, before applying her "scientific mind" to analyzing the physics, designing the barrel, and then figuring out how to profit from her venture. She turns to Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky) for promotion and management, looking past his skepticism and general sleaziness, and after a sideline at the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition (where the assassination of President McKinley steals her much-needed publicity), Anna takes the literal and figurative plunge on her 63rd birthday. And subsequently spends a lifetime recovering from the ordeal.

It's in that aftermath that Queen of the Mist truly ignites, as Anna fights against the public's fickle tastes and short memory, Frank's duplicitous nature, and time not being on her side. It's also when the show begins wondering with increased urgency whether such pursuits are worth the hassle, and what they mean in the grander scheme of things, and thus when it transcends history to get really, really good. The score's final, epic number, "The Fall," in which Anna confronts and relives for the first time her defining moment, ranks among LaChiusa's finest compositions: evocative in its nature-rooted imagery, intoxicating in the jumble of emotion it captures, and resplendent in how it compresses the furious world into a few minutes of unthinkable calm.

What comes before is not less accomplished as much as it is less adventurous; in fact, the relative strictures of biography find LaChiusa working in what his, for him, a fairly conventional mode. The scenes are structured around a vague vaudeville theme that establishes itself with the ensemble crowding around a piano and singing their version of a popular folk song about Taylor, keeping her intertwined with the vagaries of show business from the very start. (Sandra Goldmark's turn-of-the-century postcard drops, Kathryn Rohe's music-hall costumes, and Scott Rink's perky choreography enhance this atmosphere.)

The brightness of this setup does not always sit naturally on the angular strains of LaChiusa's music (hauntingly orchestrated by Michael Starobin and played under Chris Fenwick's emphatic musical direction); the tunes, tending toward the simple and the dark, highlight with pointed, unsentimental flair the calculating nature of Anna's mind more than the magnitude of the challenge she's set for herself. That can leave many scenes, especially early on, feeling a bit cold.

Adding to the chill is a lack of vivid relationships between characters. Anna has a handful of nice interactions with various people: her tunnel-visioned sister, Jane (Theresa McCarthy); assassin Leon Czolgosz (Tally Sessions); a second, less-enterprising manager (DC Anderson); a star-struck soldier (Stanley Bahorek); and a particularly bracing anti-alcohol crusader Carrie Nation (Julia Murney), who provides a contrasting view of how enterprising women have always made their way in American culture. But Anna forms a real bond only with Frank, and that's confined to the latter half of the first act; there's simply too little information about how they work and struggle together for their partnership to have the intended impact. The actors are to a person terrific, but register as bit players in this saga.

Nonetheless, Queen of the Mist ultimately coheres, dazzles, and captivates because of the confidence of LaChiusa's writing, the delicate swirl of Cummings's thoughtful direction, and the tour-de-force turn of Testa. She played major roles in the original productions of LaChiusa's Marie Christine and See What I Wanna See, and in Transport Group's 2002's revival of First Lady Suite, but operates on a higher plane this time around. Her Anna is an exquisitely carved iron matron, with an incredible sense of focus: You sense, whenever she gazes off into the distance (as she does frequently), that she spies at least ten things your eyes aren't advanced enough to see. Testa leaves no doubt that Anna knows precisely what she wants and precisely how to get it, which is all the show requires to stay afloat.

Yet Testa goes further still, investing Anna with a full six decades of disappointment and loss. You gradually come to realize that this is a woman who erected her impenetrable fa├žade as a way of dealing with a life that has never unfolded according to plan, and that having and missing her chance at glory represents a betrayal she lacks the words and self-awareness to articulate. Because Testa restrains her ample belt and nutcracker comic chops throughout most of her portrayal, Anna transforms from an eye-rolling eccentric into a legitimately heartbreaking tragic figure embodying the deepest fears about loneliness and destitution that many of us feel but seldom dare express.

For Anna, fame alone was not enough. In the sequence in which she realizes this, Testa, seated, drains of all her color and personality and lives entirely in her eyes, which are seeing the world as it is—and not as she's dreamed it to be—for the first time. At the performance I attended, Testa and Anna bravely fought back the waterfall of tears that would seem to organically accompany such a realization, but that kept welling up as if hoping to overwhelm by sheer number.

You'll be warring with the waterworks as well, but for a different reason. Watching Testa depict such a life-changing journey while sitting immobile was the biggest thrill of the night, surpassed only minutes later, when she stepped forth to recreate Anna's physical, spiritual, and societal descent in "The Fall." LaChiusa and Cummings's first-tier showmanship so intimately coexisting with Testa's masterful acting reaffirms your faith in musical theatre's ability to elevate and inspire the soul. That, like Queen of the Mist, is an unparalleled reason to weep—with joy.

Queen of the Mist
Through November 18
The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South
TICKETS at the Box Office: (866) 811-4111
Performances: Tues 8:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 8:00 pm

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