Queen of the Mist is the best musical drama I have seen in decades.
A seasoned critic was once quoted as warning a fresh young reviewer, "You'll run out of adjectives. We all do." Words and phrases such as "superb," "excellent," "skillful," "clever," "sophisticated," "tour-de-force," "role of a lifetime," and "artful" may not be the freshest terms of praise, but they are the ones I would apply to every aspect of this unique musical.
In an operetta-like mode, the story of Anna Edson Taylor unfolds seamlessly from start to finish, in a manner that is authentically enchanting, even mesmerizing. In 1901, Ms. Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a barrel she personally designed and named Queen of the Mist. That the mind of man (in this case, writer/composer Michael John LaChiusa) could use Ms. Taylor's unlikely-to-be-dramatized story as the basis for an emotionally involving musical is in itself amazing. On top of that, to do so with a beautiful score rendered with both spirited and spellbinding arrangements by Michael Starobin, six excellent supporting players, fine direction by Jack Cummings III, inventive lighting by R. Lee Taylor, great scenic design by Sandra Goldmark, and authentic period costumes by Kathryn Rohe is astonishing.
Anna Edson Taylor, something of a blustering eccentric at 63, came up with the idea of going over the Falls -- to make both money (first and foremost, it seems) and a name for herself -- having previous failed at numerous endeavors. Anna had a sense that she possessed a unique and unfulfilled potential, and she was determined to manifest it. She does: She was successful at Niagara Falls. What comes after is quite another story. Will she springboard from the dangerous waters of the Falls to a life of prosperity, comfort, and fame? Or will the true outcome of her quest be something quite other that what she intended?
Whatever she did become, the very human Anna is given a deep humanity by Mary Testa's dynamic portrayal. This role has provided Ms. Testa with the theatrical opportunity of a lifetime. With her fine voice and unswerving intensity, Ms. Testa gives a performance that is humorous and emotionally affecting as well. This is a tour-de-force evening for the star.
The supporting players are all real professionals with trained and properly placed voices: not a hint of the so-called "contemporary voice" that is all so popular now (the sound of which prompts me to involuntarily run for the nearest exit). Each of the supporting players’ faces are reminiscent of the "types" one sees in turn-of-the-century tintype portraits, adding to the atmosphere of the period. Andrew Samonsky is both shady and empathetic as Anna’s mustached, tippling manager. Theresa McCarthy is Anna’s gentle and patient-to-a-point sister. "A man with a handkerchief wrapped around his hand" is justly and frantically portrayed by Tally Sessions. Julia Murney is equally at peak as the stern Carrie Nation and later a bawdy slut; Stanley Bahorek plays the part of a doughboy looking and acting like he is ready to ship out; and D.C. Anderson is perfect as Ann's antsy barrel maker and nasty new manager. These six spirited actor/singers are a pleasure to behold, both in ensemble and as their various finely etched characters.
To those who are up for sophisticated mature musical theater, I cannot recommend Queen of the Mist enough. This is a rare, solid book musical, the likes of which come along all too infrequently. See it while you can. - Jay Reisberg
Queen of the Mist is at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South, through Nov. 20, 2011.
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.