I was not wrong to be encouraged by what Michael John LaChiusa delivered with the second of his two one acts in See What I Wanna See. That play contained all the musical and thematic sophistication that’s so important to him, but at the same time, it also contained a solidly constructed narrative—his first to follow classic musical theatre principles, rather than the dictates of a more free-form muse—and that was all it took to, ironically, liberate him and his gifts for lyrics and music to reach heights that had before only been potential.
In following a similar path with his latest, Queen of the Mist, he has created what is (along with the second act of See) my favorite of his shows by quite a wide margin. It isn’t a “near-perfect” musical (though it misses that by a much smaller margin) but it is fascinating, endlessly theatrical and very possibly strong enough on its own terms to find a place in the mainstream repertoire.
It’s based on the true story of Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor, a former teacher who, past middle age and without financial prospects, decided to bank everything, including her life, on a fantastic stunt: she endeavored to be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel…and survive. Which she did, on her 63rd birthday, October 24, 1901.
A quibble first: Mr. LaChiusa has chosen to portray Anna as a proud narcissist, convinced that she is possessed of greatness the world has yet to acknowledge, if she can only find the mode of expression. By way of keeping the financial wolf away from the door, she is a master of fast talk and misdirection—that sometimes even works—but this makes her ultimately a shallower character than perhaps she ought to be to drive this musical. We don’t ever convincingly get the sense that she was an effective teacher or in any way very productive before poverty hit, so our first impression of her is that of a self-deluding slacker in search of a gimmick (though she expresses herself with grand airs that would never put it so crudely). Subsequently it takes too long for other interesting facets of her psychology to emerge, and thus too long for us to find the sympathetic connection to her. As with many of the other people in her life, she doesn’t so much take us in us as wear us as wear us down. And I think if the show ever moves to a larger venue, Mr. LaChiusa might work on having her convince us; even though he’s clearly writing a show about obsession and its aftermath, it would not hurt its thematic integrity a whit for us to cotton to our heroine earlier. I’m not saying she should be easy to love, for that would violate the piece. Only that whatever in her deserves our rooting interest should be visible and viscerally felt sooner.
But if one makes allowances for that, one opens up to a show of unbridled invention, whose score is accessible without compromising ambition, and two of whose characters resonate as potentially iconic roles, those being Anna (here played with her usual belting bravado, plus steely, unwavering resolve by LaChiusa mainstay Mary Testa) and her sometimes shady/sometimes sincere manager Frank Russell (Adam Samonsky, who imbues the character with both insinuating subtlety and the expansiveness of a grandstanding huckster, on a path that takes him from brash confidence to alcoholic dissolution). The rest of the extremely gifted cast, in various roles, are Theresa McCarthy, Tally Sessions, Julia Murney, Stanley Bahorek and DC Anderson. And in directing the piece, Jack Cummings III seems to have quietly moved over into the A list. There may have been as relentlessly (and appropriately) stylish a staging of a new off-Broadway musical in the last decade or so; but if so, I’m hard pressed to remember it. Add evocative orchestrations by Michael Starobin to the mix, and Queen of the Mist, much like its heroine, seems poised for a kind of greatness…
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