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Queen of the Mist
By Elyse Sommer
Based on a real life slice of Americana -- the story of Anna Edson Taylor, an enterprising but failed teacher of dancing, music and physical fitness, who in 1901 at age 63, set out to change her luck by being the first person to shoot Niagara Falls and survive; her vehicle: a barrel of her own design. While Taylor did survive what followed was an early example of the negative fallout and ephemeral nature of fame, the allotment of anyone's fame Andy Warhol famously reduced to 15 minutes almost 70 years later.
For Anna Edson Taylor the aftermath of her fame and money motivated stunt proved to be as treacherous as the waters she navigated. Hungry as the public was (and still is) for sensationalism, the gutsy Taylor failed in her efforts to capitalize on her story. Her manager Frank Russell proved to be unreliable and dishonest, her appeal on the lecture circuit was short-lived. Her family was embarrassed rather than proud. Though she lived to age 82, she spent her final years impoverished, posing for photographs with tourists at her souvenir stand in Niagara Falls, New York.
The story of one woman's desperate measure to escape poverty and ordinariness and the disappointing outcome of her instant celebrity is certainly timely. And the role of the determined Anna is made to order for Mary Testa, a powerful singer and actress who's been a frequent presence in LaChiusa musicals (Marie Christine, See What I Wanna See, First Lady Suite).
Whle LaChiusa's musicals aren't notable for hummable, foot tapping songs, they are nevertheless richly melodic, and Queen of the Mist is no exception. The show begins with a catchy opening number "There is Greatness in Me" that establishes the unconventional heroine's character and showcases not only Testa's magnificent voice and stage presence but the terrific and super-versatile 5-member ensemble, some of whom like the excellent Julia Murney and Theresa McCarthy get to have the spotlight on them -- Murney as Carrie Nation with "Break Down the Door" and McCarthy as Anna's sister Jane in a lovely epistolary duet "A Letter to Jane/The Tiger."
While this isn't a love story, the relationship between Anna and her manager Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky who brings a fine voice and ne'er-do-well charisma to this role) provides the show with several ballads sung as duets, like "Types Like You" or solo like "On The Other Side."
Jack Cummings and choreographer Scott Rink has done an outstanding job in staging the story which covers more than 20 years and calls for the ensemble to portray such additional characters as Frank Russell's successors, President McKinley's assassin, the already mentioned Carrie Nation and a young World War I soldier who saw Anna's barrel ride as a youngster. The scenery is minimal, but Cummings and designer Sandra Goldmark demonstrate that you can do wonders with a sheet (at one point even making it into a rippling body of water). A filmy curtain at one end of the runway stage is imprinted with images to evoke Niagara Falls and hide the superb 6-piece orchestra.
Unfortunately Cummings hasn't persuaded LaChiusa to give his show the trimming it badly needst. The opening number, good as it is, goes on to the point of being repetitious and the finale besides also being too long, seems excessively downbeat and forced. And while I'm quibbling, Mary Testa, who is long overdue for a big starring role like this, gets that big role (she's hardly ever off stage) but as a character who is not particularly sympathetic and whose story though interesting somehow doesn't have the durable fascinaton to escape that 15-minutes to be famous limit for headline making stunts.
Unlike the Transport Group's last premiere at the Judson Gym's theater (I miss their original home, The Connelly in the East Village), the bright and livelyLysistrata Jones, Queen of the Mist is unlikely to have a Broadway after life -- so fans of not-for-everyone musicals like Mr. LaChiusa's should snag a ticket before this all too limited run ends.
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