a theatre, film & pop culture review
Only Michael John LaChiusa would tackle a musical retelling of the real-life story of daredevil Anna Edson Taylor who, to celebrate her 63rd birthday in 1901, hopped in a barrel and plunged over Niagra Falls — and survived to tell the tale.
LaChiusa’s got a proven track record for offbeat offerings that work: a woman quits smoking and starts swimming to compensate for nicotine in Little Fish; Mamie Eisenhower, Margaret Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy sing of their singular form of entrapment in the First Lady Suite; See What I Wanna See musically imagines three of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s famous short stories (including “In a Grove,” which was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon).
A criticism sometimes levied against MJL isn’t that his work is too “dark” or “challenging” (though some find that it is) — but that he’s just too darn prolific. Even though we haven’t heard much from him in New York recently, regionally, he’s all over the place. The guy just keeps churning ’em out.
While this isn’t necessarily a problem (Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan, and think his The Wild Party is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I’ve seen. Ever.), it is with Queen of the Mist, which certainly needs more development and tighter editing. Based on this musical, for which MJL also wrote the book, Taylor was a childless widow and failed dance teacher who moved around a lot in a constant quest for financial security. To prove to herself and her sister (who may or may not be a figment of MJL’s imagination — I could find no evidence that she actually existed) that she is capable of greatness — and quite possibly out of sincere desperation — she determines to pull off the stunt of the century. Afterwards, she attempts to capitalize on her outrageous act by booking speaking engagements and selling postcards, but no one is interested in hearing her story, and her manager embezzles what little money she did make.
Produced by The Transport Group, which gave us last season’s super-sexy revival of MJL’s Hello, Again, Jack Cummings III directs his fine cast with an intimate touch, and the score, while quite lovely on the whole, only hits its stride in the final 30 minutes, when we begin to hear an intriguing discordance during Annie’s trippy journey into the afterlife. MJL attemps to flesh out Annie’s otherwise unremarkable life — injecting the disapproving sister and complicating her relationship with her manager — but the drama simply isn’t there. Annie — despite the super-solid portrayal by the always brilliant Mary Testa (a frequent collaborator of Michael John’s) — isn’t compelling enough for a full-length musical (certainly not a 2 hours and 40 minutes-long musical), but maybe her story could be if tightened into one act.
Then again, perhaps this “Queen of the Mist” is best left as a fun historical anecdote.