Queen of the Mist [Ghostlight]
Michael John LaChiusa has developed a reputation for intelligent and intriguing chamber musicals which, alas, are not always easy to embrace. A dozen or so full-scale works since 1993, including a musicalization of Edna Ferber's "Giant" which first appeared in Arlington, VA in 2009 and looks to create major excitement when it arrives at the The Public Theater in October.
Last season's slice of LaChiusa broke the pattern of his recent New York shows (namely Little Fish, See What I Want to See and Bernarda Alba). Queen of the Mist opened in November in the gym at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, in an effective production from the Transport Group, and broke through that interesting-but-unembraceable mold. This particular chamber tuner was as unusual and specialized as the composer/lyricist/librettist's other work, yes. But it grabbed you and involved you, in a way that none of his musicals has — for me, anyway — since Hello Again.
The subject here is one Anna Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old misfit who in 1901 went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. A LaChiusa-like subject, yes, but the story is well told, with keen insights on celebrity, emancipation and more. The score is as creative and wide-ranging as usual, but here it all holds together. "I Have Greatness in Me," Taylor sings again and again, and this is a score which you might say has a share of greatness.
On first hearing, in the theatre, it was a cornucopia so bounteous that you couldn't quite classify it; one of those scores that you are sure you like by the middle of the first act, although there is so much going on musically (and otherwise) that you can't exactly describe why. Now that we can hear it again on the Ghostlight CD, we can say (a) yes, it is as good as it seemed; and (b) we can play it repeatedly. LaChiusa has always displayed plenty of melody, but he has had a tendency to overpower it with layers of what you might call esoteric art. The Queen of the Mist score is as artful and esoteric as his other work, but — using Niagara as an image — song after song is as bracing and as refreshing as the mist in your face when you stand along the riverbank of the Falls. If ever you've stood along the riverbank.
Prime among the pleasures here is Mary Testa as Anna. Testa, as followers of musical theatre know, is quite a performer. Larger than life, she has a tendency to bring an overlay of personality to her roles. This can provide an extra shot of entertainment, as in the George C. Wolfe On the Town and 42nd Street. Sometimes, though, Testa brings a tad too much. But not here. This is the perfect role for Testa, and Testa is the perfect performer for this role. The performance was of the type that can easily nab you a Tony Award nomination (at least). Being Off-Broadway in a month-long run at a 100-seat house, though, Testa's Anna went unseen by far too many people. Hopefully we shall get to see this performance again; it is too good to be missed.
Testa was ably supported by a company of six, most of whom doubled and all of whom were very good. (The Transport Group's Jack Cummings III did a masterful job of staging and producing the show.) Standing out was Andrew Samonsky, as Taylor's manager Frank Russell. Samonsky, a replacement Lt. Cable in Lincoln Center's South Pacific, held his own against Testa, which under the circumstances was not easy. Also of note was Theresa McCarthy, playing Anna's straight-laced sister and a raucously funny showgirl. Let's also salute Stanley Bahorek, D.C. Anderson, Julia Murney and Tally Sessions. The score is supported by a highly effective set of orchestrations, for seven pieces, from Michael Starobin.
Queen of the Mist was little seen, alas. It will hopefully resurface in time, presumably with Testa in her rightful place. Most everyone who saw the production last winter is likely to want to hear this CD; and everyone who loves this CD is sure to want to see Queen of the Mist on stage.
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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
Playbill Video spoke to the creatives behind Queen of the Mist in 2011: