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Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChiusa
Pint of Wine Theatre Company
Charing Cross Theatre
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In 1901 on her 63rd birthday, Anna Edison Taylor was sealed in a barrel, lowered from a rowing boat into the Niagara River and carried by the current over the Niagara Falls. Seventeen minutes later, the barrel was dragged near the shore and she was released alive with no bones broken. This musical is her story. You may never have heard of her but her feat made her famous, the first person to survive going over them. But fame is fleeting and that was her tragedy.

John La Chiusa provides both words and music and this is a delightfully tuneful creation that often echoes the music hall and popular song of the beginning of the twentieth century and Broadway musical style but given a modern touch. Michael Starobin’s orchestration and the seven-piece band (some placed around the set) under MD Connor Fogel and a cast with strong and expressive voices serve him well; it’s a musical treat.

Chiusa’s book, however, doesn’t provide gripping material and isn’t always easy to follow. Anna (Trudi Camilleri), widowed young, has been trained as a teacher but when we first see her she has no pupils and is behind with the rent on both home and schoolroom. She is thrown out and desperate. For a time, her sister Jane (Emily Juler) gives her shelter but then Anna concocts the idea of her Niagara “experiment” and, after researching into how she will do it, looks for a manager to promote her.

Her relationship with manager Frank Russell (Will Arundell) is a prickly one, well played by performers who both have a strong stage presence, but how do you handle someone whose constant refrain is “There is Greatness in Me”, describes herself as “A Phenomenon” and even declares she is psychic?

Though we certainly get Anna’s view of herself, we don’t actually learn much about her and it is the atmosphere provided by Tara Usher’s barrel-inspired wooden setting, Beth Gupwell's mellow chiaroscuro lighting and the spirited playing of the cast that hold the attention rather than story as Dom O’Hanlon’s production builds to the stunt itself (a term Anna would disapprove of).

In some ways, the second act is more interesting as Anna discovers how fickle fame is.

She sacks her manager whom she thinks has been cheating (he then sets up a copycat show with an impostor) while she goes through a succession of replacements as she tries to cash in with lectures, public appearances and souvenir sales, touring at one time as supporting act to the now equally unknown prohibitionist Carrie Nation (Emma Ralston) whose hatchet attacks upon taverns provide an excuse for a hatchet-wielding chorus and there is also an encounter with the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (Conor McFarlane) who shot President McKinley.

Anna slips back into pauperdom, but one young soldier (Tom Blackmore), on his way to join the Allies in Europe, does still remember watching her feat in his boyhood, and as Anna’s time draws to a close, he and the others we have met in her past seem to visit her in a contrived but touching coda.

We have got used to musicals based on unusual subjects and this is by no means the oddest. An excellent cast maintain a rapport with the audience on both sides of this traverse staging with an easy physicality that suggests they could handle more complex choreography. Whilst the book has its weaknesses, the rich, sometimes almost operatic score is beguiling and its delivery makes Queen of the Mist a pleasure if you like something different—this certainly isn’t rock opera!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton