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Mary & Melody:
Queen of the Mist & teen princess of cabaret

In one of the more unusual footnotes on history's pages becoming a musical, we have the real-life story of the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Then, over in California, nowadays, is a very young teen-aged girl clearly having a barrel of fun with her lively live cabaret show featuring songs from musical theatre and films.


Ghostlight Records

Those looking for a meaty new musical in the current climate often flush with fluff, begin the rejoicing and gratitude now. Let your ears be opened and filled with intriguing and eclectic sounds. Yes, it's often serious, challenges the mind, and has a moral compass and tragic overtones. If it were only about a daredevil, it might still have some excitement and entertainment value. But musicalizing the life of Anna (Annie) Edson Taylor, who, at age 63 in 1901, was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive, is much more than that. Exploring motivations, how decisions are determined by desperation, defiance, and the desire for dignity and fame all factor in. Those elements bring an aching pitiable sadness and humanity to a stern and prickly central character played with grit and volcanic intensity by Mary Testa, in a tour de force performance where she is on the overwhelmingly majority of the tracks, with tour-de-force singing and much dialogue and speeches.

Queen of the Mist, which goes beyond the narrow story specifics to imply commentary on the nature of society's fevered yet fickle fascination with celebrity and financial rewards and its tendency to judge others, makes the musical play broader than a recounting of what happened in one person's otherwise unremarkable life. Somewhat of a musical theatre daredevil himself, with a track record of delving into darker or deeper subject matter, talented, broad-paletted composer-lyricist-bookwriter Michael John LaChiusa (music, lyrics and book) came up with an eclectic, unblinking, often fascinating work. It makes a compelling cast album listening experience. Yes, there are times it may seem relentless and repetitive because of the main character's steamroller persona and need to re-state to her case, but the integrity of the material and Ms. Testa's admirable command and focus make it worthwhile.

Even on first hearing, it is amply evident that what crystallizes, enriches, and expands the musical and dramatic impact, line by line, moment by momentum, are the sensational and rewarding orchestrations by inventive veteran Michael Starobin. Fascinating, creative, non-cliché, the specific instrumental voicings bring a wealth of subtext and beauty. The skilled and thoughtful playing comes from a seven-person orchestra led by keyboardist Chris Fenwick, including cello and French horn. The value of the orchestrations here cannot be overestimated, bringing underlying heart and yearning to stoic sections, weight and tension to what could be otherwise deceptively light places that need the lingering heft. I can't wait to "study" some micro-effects even more intently. Such work makes repeat listenings increasingly satisfying.

Varied melodic swaths grab and then surprise the ear and capture period styles. Those who have found some LaChiusa scores elusive or esoteric or "arty," please note that the melodies here can often be described with that word you might be hoping for: accessible. Not an ethereal or operatic piece, we have a series of numbers that can be often in-your-face, jaunty, stark, or stirring. At times, it's disturbing or touching and darkly funny. The songwriting craft is on display without calling back-patting attention to itself. Note the alliteration that is unforced in the number wondering how the barrel might be viewed, depending on the life-or-death outcome of the risky endeavor: in "The Barrel/ Cradle or Coffin" as those two hard-C words are followed by "carriage or casket called forth" (later, "with care you are conceived and constructed"); and the R words that aren't a stretch to include "the rapids and the rocks and the river's icy claw ..." Packed rhymes intensify the confidence so richly and seethingly embodied by our star as she sings "Revile me and rout me/ Defile me and doubt me" and then "Come harm me and hate me/ Disarm me and bait me" in her spitting, spouted challenge in "Laugh at the Tiger."

Andrew Samonsky as Taylor's manager nicely balances the leading lady's harshness with a warmer sound, encouraging her to soften her own voicings as she persuades him to work with her in "Types Like You" which is also a battle of wills and becomes delightfully contrapuntal as their solos overlap when the words repeat. He shows versatility in other pieces as his character changes due to time, severed ties and booze. Theresa McCarthy is an appealing vocal and acting presence as Taylor's sister, upping the emotional ante to motivate more showing of feelings and memories for the otherwise often brittle self-styled heroine played by Testa. McCarthy later takes on another role, appearing with Samonsky on the "Million Dolla' Momma" segment which is full of vulgarities that would result in F.C.C. fines if played on the radio. She and Stanley Bahorek, Tally Sessions, charmingly sly D. C. Anderson, and chameleon-like Julia Murney complete the cast, playing multiple roles and doing some great harmony ensemble work, with individual turns, too, like Julia Murney's harangue as Carrie Nation, "Break Down the Door," blessed with a deliciously playful tune rather than a throwaway harsh rant, and the actress makes the most of it, using different vocal colorings and sweep.

Admittedly an unlikely subject for a musical, and not a warm and fuzzy one by far, but with its intriguing, committed performances, thought-provokingly broader themes, Queen of the Mist is not to be missed.



Here's a CD that came out at the end of 2011 I've been meaning to get to, and a recent mention of another live appearance by the singer reminded me about it.

"I'm chipper all the day, happy with my lot ..." goes a line in the verse to the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm," the number that skyrocketed to stardom the belter of all belters, Ethel Merman, some 82 years ago. Sounding very, very chipper indeed and quite happy with her lot in life, brightly belting out for an audience in that song and many more (like another classic by the same writers with which it's combined, as has been done by numerous others, "Fascinating Rhythm") is Melody Hollis. Welcome to Melodyland captures her own one-girl cabaret show in California (Upstairs at Vitello's Jazz & Supper Club). It was recorded last summer when the perky, plucky performer with a steely, strong sound was all of 13. In the chorus of the song, as a nod to her age, the line "I got my man" is replaced by "I got my dad." And she's got her dad right there on stage. He, Steve Hollis, is her pianist—and the sole accompanist here—and quite able (musical energy and vim seem to run in the family). So, ponder and guess this: When someone this age, with her own father at the keyboard, sings the serious words of warning and advice called "Children Will Listen," Stephen Sondheim's sobering song from Into the Woods, is it: (a) disarming yet chilling; (b) brilliant and movingly heartbreaking; or (c) somewhat audacious and overall rather creepy? The answer, disappointing or with a sense of relief, is (d) none of the above. Though it could well have been any of those things, it's calm, unruffled, understated and gentle, not revealing any great particular depths of understanding, but thankfully not coming off as telling off adults. Perhaps the patter setting it up pre-drains some drama as Melody expresses her gratitude for her supportive, nurturing parents who are "careful," cuing the first line of the piece. Nevertheless, it's odd, without being unsettling. Unsettling, though, would have been more interesting. But the colors of life here in Melodyland are Crayola-bright and shiny.

The serious moments on the CD feel somewhat pat and rehearsed; they don't ring as true as her ringing voice and the fun-fun-fun agenda that seems more comfort-zoned. Likewise, though it is welcome to hear a few examples of the prettier side of her voice when she gives the guts 'n' gusto approach a rest, she sounds more tentative in tender territory and head tones. At this point in her young career, which includes playing characters in musicals, the eager-to-please, polished razzle-dazzling seems the strong suit. Showing the unguarded real vulnerable person underneath, communicating genuine feelings to an audience, as if the songs are coming from one's thoughts and heart, rather than the diaphragm and sheet music—the hallmarks of cabaret—are not yet glimmering under the surface in this cabaret "act." Hey, she's 13. Attempts at more serious observations and perspectives, like "A Quiet Thing" (Kander & Ebb) come across as directed, the words not lingered over or examined, but glossed over with broad emotional strokes. Better that than pretentious, I suppose, but there isn't a sense of personalizing songs with unique perspective or unusual, inventive arrangements that place familiar material in new perspectives.

Briskly approached, the show feels more like a concert with fairly lovingly traditional approaches to songs one is fond of and wants to tackle than a "cabaret act." Arrangements are by John Boswell and Bruce Kimmel, who is also the director and has presented Melody in several of his group shows. Mr. Kimmel also provides the liner notes, telling of how he was quite taken by her performance in the title role of Annie in the West Coast production where Broadway's original Annie, Andrea McArdle, played Miss Hannigan—and, when approached by Mom Hollis, agreed to coach Melody and develop an act for her. The opening number he wrote, "Melodyland," is a major highlight and showcases his star extremely well: demonstrating her exuberance, strong notes, personality, and ability to modulate, with lyrics that list those assets, outfitted with a catchy tune.

Cheer abounds and—depending on your affinity for brash, confident, very young performers with Broadway brio—will either be contagious and charming or will make you run, ears covered, far from the shores of Melodyland. However, she's more competent and less cloying than some cutesy, sugar-coated Baby June-wannabes who simply scream or shriek or go for the adorable warble. Melody is pretty solid and straightforward, seemingly savvy and wears her love for performing plainly. Except when pointedly winking, the material is generally and consciously age-appropriate: not a lot younger, not an adult. That's a blessing.

Material includes several dips into Disney fare, big numbers about wanting to perform, and reprises of Melody's stage roles. There's the obligatory Annie anthem, "Tomorrow," not sticky or overly strident, but emphasizing confidence much more than yearning. She also revisits her Broadway and regional experiences in White Christmas. With the latter, set up by patter, she gets her chance to try on the grown-up role she says she hopes to grow into, asking the crowd to indulge her as she—ahem!—attempts "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me." Obviously, she's more convincing with what could be her overall motto: "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." Just try and stop her.

- Rob Lester

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