Queen Of The Mist
Music, lyrics and book by Michael John LaChiusa
Pint of Wine Theatre
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Courtesy of Pint of Wine Theatre Michael John LaChiusa's Queen Of The Mist receives its UK professional première at The Jack in south east London, and it really is a must-see for lovers of contemporary musical theatre.
First there is the engaging score with its soaring spirit and nod to turn of the century American composition delivered by an outstanding band, under the baton of musical director Jordan Li-Smith (assistant musical director Connor Fogel).
It really is a delight to hear an ensemble of seven with the richness of three strings together with two wind players and keyboards, who more than justify the space they take up in Tara Usher's elegant set for this studio venue.
The band's top-notch playing is matched by a first class cast headed up by the strongly sung Trudi Camilleri as Anna Edson Taylor, the 63-year-old schoolteacher who in 1901 survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
We first meet Taylor as a widow in penury, experiencing a flashback, the close encounter with a tiger during a childhood circus visit establishing her resolute and fearless character and the tiger as a recurring metaphor for dread.
More for money than fame, and with every intention of surviving the trip over the Falls to enjoy what she could of both, Taylor used her intellect and mathematical skill to engineer a barrel that would withstand the drop.
Whilst we would view her now as a skilled, independent and groundbreaking woman, at the time the media and the public fixed upon the sensationalism of it all, her sister Jane, beautifully sung by Emily Juler, estranged by the shaming exhibitionism of Taylor's actions.
Taylor's fame was short-lived, her courageous if risky feat diminished to a stunt and subsequent attempts to repeat her success by others relegated her further into the shadows and the poverty which lasted until her death.
Whilst the singing thrills with Will Arundell as Taylor's agent and Emma Ralston as Carrie Nation, strongly supported by Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter—especially in a lovely snippet of Barbershop—LaChiusa's book verges on the stolid.
LaChiusa has made Anna Edson Taylor very admirable but not particularly likable and the story, although revolving around such a striking exploit, lacks a dramatic centre, being a continuum of Taylor's hardships and the strength of character with which she endures them.
Like all shows based on fact or well-known fiction, the narrative has the disadvantage that the audience knows how the story ends so the greater part of the merit, and the burden for the book writer, lies in the journey to the finale rather than in the finale itself.
Whilst the movement relies rather heavily on chair-ography, director Dom O’Hanlon uses the space wisely and it is not down to his pacing (which is spot on) that the narrative drags. This is something I have experienced with other of LaChiusa's work finding both Little Fish and First Lady Suite similarly overlong.
So be forgiving of the show's surfeit twenty minutes and revel in the superior delivery of O’Hanlon's classy production.