Theatre in Review: Queen of the Mist (Transport Group/The Gym at Judson)
"I am a phenomenon," says Mary Testa in Queen of the Mist, and -- let's face it -- she is speaking God's honest truth. Cast as Anna Edson Taylor, who, at the unlikely age of 63, rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel, she is one part con woman, one part visionary, and all parts wonderful. Her posture as vertical as a totem pole, her eyes fixed on the far horizon -- only occasionally stealing a glance to see what sort of effect she is having -- she tears into her opening number, announcing, "There is greatness in me"-- and, really, is there any doubt? Whether announcing her uniqueness to the world ("I am my own world's exposition"), engaging in glorious vocal congress with her disapproving sister, or simultaneously charming and cutting a hard bargain with a prospective manager, Testa seizes our attention and sympathy, proving without a doubt why she is one of the most unique musical theatre performers that we have.
And, in Anna Edson Taylor, she has a role that is worthy of her talents, a genuine American eccentric whose pursuit of fortune proved tragically fruitless. The product of a respectable upbringing in upstate New York and the widow of a Civil War veteran, Taylor roamed the country, trying various careers with little success. In her 60s, she tried to secure her old age by the unlikely stratagem of taking on Niagara Falls. The first person to survive such an attempt -- the year was 1901 -- she managed to attain flavor-of-the-week status, but the big payoff never came her way, and she became mired in legal battles with her ex-manager. She ended up running a souvenir stand in her old age while pursuing a sideline as a clairvoyant.
Michael John LaChiusa, who wrote the book, score, and lyrics for Queen of the Mist, makes the most of this material early on. Without overburdening us with detail, he grants Anna every one of her bizarre characteristics, at the same time making her into a compelling, almost magnetic figure. It's all in the words and music. "I Have Greatness in Me" is a witty and stirring introduction to the indomitable side of Anna's nature. "A Letter to Jane/The Tiger" is a gorgeous duet for Anna and her staid sister, establishing the push-pull tension of their relationship. "Types Like You" makes excellent use of counterpoint melody to show Anna wearing down the resistance of Frank Russell, the whiskey-loving rogue who will become her manager, whether he likes it or not. This is one of LaChiusa's finest scores, with fiercely assertive melodies supported by a strongly melancholy substructure and words that are clean, clear, and evocative of the turn of the last century.
Most interestingly, LaChiusa takes Annie at face value. While other writers might use her as the basis for some kind of romp, he seems most fascinated by her willingness to place such an existential bet. The buildup to Anna's "deed," as she calls it, generates real tension and suspense, and her big number near the end of Act I, "Laugh at the Tiger," has a real majesty about it.
If LaChiusa is one of the most inventive and original theatre songwriter now at work, he is, at best, an indifferent librettist, and Queen of the Mist runs into major second-act problems. Many of them are a result of his honesty. Based on the evidence of Act I, Anna is another of the musical theatre's many great grifters, in the tradition of Harold Hill, Mama Rose, Starbuck, and even Roxie Hart. But LaChiusa pretty much sticks to the facts of her case, which means he is left with a story that is, after her deed, largely an anticlimax. Further complicating matters, he suggests that Anna has had some kind of profound transformative experience while going over the falls, but he holds back the details until the very end, thus providing her with material for her eleven o'clock number. Until then, we see her being ill-treated by the press and other celebrities; there's also a poorly dramatized breakup with Russell, the issues of which are not made thoroughly clear.
The big revelation comes in the final number, "The Fall," which describes how, in risking her life, Annie somehow came in contact with the sublime. In attempting to detail such an ineffable experience, LaChiusa confirms that Annie is another kind of American character -- a Transcendentalist. Queen of the Mist is probably the first musical about the Emersonian impulse in American life -- a tall order, to say the least, and it's not possible to say that the author has fully accomplished this extraordinary task.
Still, there's plenty to love about Jack Cummings III's production. The traverse staging leads to an awful lot of promenading up and down stage, but the people doing it are abundantly talented. Andrew Samonsky's Frank Russell has a real decency that is belied by the smirk on his lips and the twinkle in his eye; he makes a fine vocal partner for Testa. Theresa McCarthy pulls off quite a double act as the prim and proper Jane and as a drunken doxy who tries to pass herself of as Anna on the vaudeville circuit. Julia Murney shows up as Carrie Nation --- who cold-shoulders Anna on the lecture circuit -- ramming home "Break Down the Door," a temperance anthem to beat them all. Tally Sessions is effective as Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist, who Anna unwittingly encourages to shoot President McKinley. Stanley Bahorek has a touching bit as a young doughboy who remembers Anna from his youth.
Sandra Goldman's set design frames the action in a series of black-and-white scrim portals, a pleasing effect that evokes the stagecraft of the period. R. Lee Kennedy's lighting constantly reshapes the space using strongly articulated angles and colors. Kathryn Rohe's costumes neatly capture the silhouettes of the era. Walter Trarbach's infinitely sensitive sound design provides extremely natural reinforcement in a notably unforgiving space. Between this production and Transport Group's revival, last season, of Hello Again, LaChiusa's music has never been so well served. (Michael Starobin's orchestrations for a band of six have a gorgeous transparency.)
Towering over it all is Testa, her clarion voice and monumental presence making Anna an object of fascination, even when her story falters and runs aground. Queen of the Mist isn't really a success, but Testa is such a force of nature she makes Niagara Falls seem like babbling brook.--David Barbour.