Queen of the Mist, a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa, is being presented by the Transport Company at the Gym at Judson. It concerns the very true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who, in 1901, at the age of 63, decided she’d put an end to the monotony of her unexciting (and poverty-stricken) life, and shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel. LaChiusa, famous for his other decidedly genius musicals Hello, Again and Wild Party, has long been involved with the equally genius Transport Company, and this production does nothing but live up to the collaborators’ hype.
The infamously intimate gym at Judson Church was transformed into a ghostly theatre from the early 1900s. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling, a player piano sat before the audience (which was piled into bleachers on either side of the “stage”) and a small orchestra was veiled behind specter-like scrims painted to imitate old theatre interiors. The show began with a song, strongly inspired by tunes from the turn of the century, sung by a small ensemble and detailing the barrel-clad adventure of our questionable heroine of the evening.
What follows is one of the most important pieces of new American musical theatre that’s happening on the stage today. There were larger than life performances, infectious and honest-to-god showtunes, and twists and turns in the story that could break the heart of the River God himself. What made the musical most wonderful was the way in which it unabashedly embraced the elements of classic musical theatre. It did, of course, turn them on their heads several times, but the memorable melodies and giant characters were pure musical theatre gold.
As brilliant as the show was, there were disappointments to be had. Much of the highest emotion, both in the songs and in the scenes, felt largely unearned. Intense interaction between Anna and her manager in the second act regarding the loss of their beautiful friendship felt empty since there was no satisfying moment in Act I that showed the relationship as strong at all, heavy-handed pastiche was employed for seemingly no reason (in the otherwise lovely “Take a Little Walk with Me”) and a metaphor about a tiger from Anna’s past was a little too forcefully inserted into the story.
But the barrel floated, anyway. Mary Testa was a vision as the sort of tragically persistent woman you’d like to travel back in time to be best girlfriends with. Andrew Samonsky smoldered with repulsive charm and, at the end, true heart. Stand-out ensemble members Julia Murney and Theresa McCarthy brought down the house with a rousing religious showstopper and a scene-stealing portrayal of a foul-mouthed lady of vaudeville, respectively. And, while the show might have lost focus or drive in some places, no failure could have obscured the brilliance of Anna Edson Taylor’s onstage trip down the falls in her barrel. In an indescribable feat of orchestration, voice, sound and light, the entire audience was simultaneously taken over by fear, excitement, and most of all: chills.
Queen of the Mist is now playing through Nov. 20th at the Gym at Hudson.