Monday, November 07, 2011

THEATER: Queen of the Mist

Photo/Carol Rosegg
There's perhaps too much of Anna "Annie" Edson Taylor in Michael John LaChiusa's new musical about the last twenty years of her life, Queen of the Mist. For while it's true that there is greatness present, the show has as much trouble showing it as did Annie. In that light, the musical fails as the jaunty biography of this little-known 63 year-old woman, who, in 1901, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel (and survive), bloated with tangential moments (and songs) about the Pan-American Expo, McKinley's assassination, and Carrie Nation's rhetoric. It succeeds, ironically, in the second act by charting the muddy waters of Taylor's downfall (post-fall), debunking the so-called hero mythos in the process and getting away from the more repetitive, plot-summarizing songs like those of "The Barrel," whose lyrics/ingredients are: "Fifteen inches at the base, thirty-four inches in the center, twenty-two inches at the top." Only Mary Testa's searing, soul-searching performance as Mrs. Taylor keeps the show afloat, equal parts confidence and desperation, as seen in the frenzied, wild-eyed "Laugh at the Tiger."

As is often the issue with daredevils, the writing is exceedingly thin, strong enough to last only as long as the stuntperson remains in the air. Annie needs conflict, but finds none -- not from her fragile sister, Jane (Theresa McCarthy), who casts her out and largely disappears, nor from her manager, Mr. Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky), who is meant to be the voice of reason, if for no other reason than to protect his own liabilities. Samonsky does a fine job trying to sell us on his huckster-with-a-heart character, but his struggles show the issues with LaChiusa's script: we only ever get the huckster moments. Though he asks Annie for forgiveness, we remember him only as the rogue who drunkenly attempts to make money off of Annie by using a Taylor impersonator in "Million Dolla' Momma." Even Testa faces similar struggles:  the scene in which she accuses a dismissive Carrie Nation of greed ("You comfort yourself saying you're not a whore/neither am I/but we need more/more green to get by") is quite out of character, and works only because Testa's given plenty of other opportunities. Meanwhile, the ensemble suffers the worst of it, for while they sing prettily enough (save for a few odd disharmonies whenever the orchestra drops out), their characters are flat cut-outs, like DC Anderson's shouty "new manager," Tally Sessions's "Man with his Hand Wrapped in a Handkerchief" (the McKinley shooter), and Stanley Bahorek's portrayal of Mike (no relation) Taylor, a soldier who shows up to reassure a by-this-point delusional Annie that her act did give some, like him, courage and inspiration.

The structure of Queen of the Mist and Annie's life sloppily parallel each other so often that LaChiusa must have done so intentionally, if not ill-advisedly: after all, why would you want to make a musical that has no idea what it wants to do with itself? Director Jack Cummings III works well with what he's given -- a narrow swath of gymnasium flooring between two risers filled with audience members, a misty scrim that hides the orchestra, and an old piano that sweeps between the two sides of the stage -- but this is ultimately a show without a big idea, with a lackluster musical theme, and either a problematic first or second act: your call.

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