By Lucy Komisar
Mary Testa is thrilling in Michael John LaChiusa’s cantata about the true-life Anna Edson Taylor, a gutsy, idiosyncratic woman who in 1901 went over Niagara Falls in an oak barrel she had designed. She was 63, had an overwhelming sense of self and saw this as the defining moment to prove there was greatness in her.
The story plays out in a small space at the Judson Memorial Church with bleachers lining two sides of what was a gym. The performers move between them in a fashion that creates both intimacy and emotional tension, under the expert direction of the Transport Group’s Jack Cummings.
Mary Testa, a charmer in black floor length gown, shows again that she is a fine actress as well as one of the theater’s best musical performers. When the chorus of five does the scene setting and exposition – often in harmony to ragtime or carnival music or other rhythms of the time – they have enough voice and panache to be a whole chorale. The music by LaChiusa fills the space with dramatic excitement.
This is a feminist story about a woman, unmarried, who saw no other way to rise above the careers dealt to her. She had tried to earn a living as a dance and music teacher and had to skip town when she couldn’t pay the studio rent. Testa sings in a rich soprano, You have chances, not many. I cannot live as ordinary.
She decides to throw the dice, knowing that the gamble could mean her death.
She persuades the cynical Frank Russell (the fine baritone Andrew Samonsky) to be her manager, because the payoff will be cash from people wanting to hear her sensational story. Testa sings, The world offers nothing. I’ll take what I want.
The Queen of the Mist was the name of the barrel. She lined it with a mattress. And she scientifically measured what rocks and depths were beneath the surface so she could shift to steer the contraption. The feat was quite amazing in its time; numerous people had died in the attempt.
The dénouement comes after she emerges from her ordeal. There’s the nasty press, the preying con men.
She is upstaged at a large meeting by the great Carrie Nation, brilliantly and comically performed by Julia Murney. She meets, perhaps in fantasy, the assassin (Tally Sessions) who killed President McKinley.
LaChiusa, as original and special in his own way as Taylor was in hers, opens a window into the American character — and to the limited choices that a woman with imagination and courage had at that time.
Queen of the Mist. Book, Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Listen to the play and songs here. Directed by Jack Cummings III. The Transport Group at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, 243 Thompson Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened November 6, 2011. Closes December 4, 2011.
Drama Desk nominations April 2012:
OUTSTANDING MUSICAL: Queen of the Mist
OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Andrew Samonsky, Queen of the Mist
OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL: Jack Cummings III, Queen of the Mist
OUTSTANDING MUSIC: Michael John LaChiusa, Queen of the Mist
OUTSTANDING LYRICS: Michael John LaChiusa, Queen of the Mist
OUTSTANDING BOOK OF A MUSICAL: Michael John LaChiusa, Queen of the Mist
SPECIAL AWARDS: Each year, the Drama Desk votes special awards to recognize excellence and significant contributions to the theater. For 2011-2012, these awards include:
To Mary Testa: For over three decades, she has dazzled audiences with consistently outstanding work, including her tour-de-force performance in this season’s Queen of the Mist.