Wednesday, November 23, 2011

REVIEW: Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist.  Review of the Saturday, November 19 evening performance at the Gym at Judson in New York City.  2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.  Starring Mary Testa and DC Anderson, Stanley Bahorek, Theresa McCarthy, Julia Murney, Andrew Samonsky and Tally Sessions.  A new musical by Michael John La Chiusa.  Choreography by Scott Rink.  Musical Direction by Chris Fenwick.  Direction by Jack Cummings III.  Through December 4.

Grade: A-

She might have been one of America's very first reality stars.  She survived a death-defying stunt.  Hers was an amazing race over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  And soon enough, the real world moved on, and like so many after her, she took much more than her fifteen minutes of fame.  And, sadly, like so many in her position of fame, the fall from grace was swift and hard.  In the case of Anna Edson Taylor, the fall was most tragic.  She died blind (unable to afford treatment for failing eyesight), penniless (money squandered and stolen from her), and in a pauper's grave (later, after money was raised, she was buried in a simple grave).  A tragedy in every sense of the word.

Mary Testa and Company
Today, however, her life has been given a lovely tribute: an honest, warts and all telling of a complex woman in Michael John LaChiusa's new musical called Queen of the Mist.  The truth is, it is somewhat surprising that this woman, barely a footnote in history now, has become the subject of a full blown musical.  While there is no doubt that her accomplishment is a remarkable and rarely repeated one, if she were around today, she'd probably rate a 45 second spot on the 11PM news, a few jokes on Letterman and with a good agent, perhaps two minutes on the last hour of Today (and not with Hoda or Kathie Lee, either).  Why?  Well, America doesn't have much patience for stern, mannish women, but when the press even refers to her as "maddening," her voice as a "deep, boring monotone," and her manner to be brusque and rude, one can imagine how fast we'd all be moving on to the next "big thing."

So the biggest surprise of all is that Queen of the Mist and its subject are an entertaining and almost always interesting evening of theatre.  Then again, I can't imagine a better pair of collaborators to create and execute such a such a show. Neither La Chiusa or his frequent leading lady, Mary Testa are known for shying away from the difficult, risky or unlikely.

Ms. Testa, know for her larger than life characters, but usually in a comedic vein as taken on what may well turn out to be a career defining role.  Everything you've heard about this performance is true, and then some.  I will try to do justice to her achievement, but this is definitely a case of seeing is believing.  What she has done here is create a woman who so strongly believes that she is greatness personified, that even though we can see she lacks in pretty much every department except courage, we can't help but start to believe it a bit ourselves, at least in act one, which takes right to the edge of the falls before the intermission starts.  I found myself routing for her despite her matter of fact self-involvement, wanting her to achieve the greatness she knows she has in her despite her lack of conscience and social skills.  And you can't fault her for lack of determination and sheer will.  Then, in act two, as Taylor's life spirals out of control, you can't help but feel let down, some measure of pity, and finally a hoping that she will just go away already.  Ms. Testa takes us on that odd journey because despite all of it, we can't help but be drawn in by Taylor's desperation and enthralled by the magnitude of Testa's performance.  How often can you say you were better for having spent so much time in the presence of such an unlikable bore?

The men of the ensemble
Ms. Testa, of course, isn't doing this alone.  She has the support of one of the late 20th-early 21st century's greatest musical composers, who has supplied the book, music and lyrics.  By and large, Mr. LaChiusa's score is rich, melodic and varied.  It combines period-style numbers, traditional musical theatre songs and some very contemporary styled inner monologue songs and some pretty heady psychological songs, as well. Aided by the gorgeous orchestrations of Michael Starobin, and the musical direction of Chris Fenwick, the score has a lush full-bodied sound that is all the more impressive when you find out that it is being played by a mere seven people!  Alternately tuneful and toe-tapping and movingly somber, there are very few if any songs I didn't care for.  Stand out numbers include "There is Greatness In Me," Anna's tribute to herself, the haunting and prophetic "The Barrel/Cradle or Coffin," the rousing and very telling "The Quintessential Hero," which opens act two, the ode to the American way, "The Green," and the finale, "The Fall."  LaChiusa's book, which mostly amounts to mini soliloquies for Anna, and short exchanges between Anna and each important person in her life, mostly serve as bridges to the songs, making this just short of a through-composed musical.  (In a lot of ways, stylistically and in terms of its leading lady, the show reminds me a great deal of Sunset Boulevard.)

The book is also the short-coming of this otherwise excellent musical.  At first, I thought that much of the repetition - details of Anna's life are repeated several times, as are ideas about her - was to support the idea that her life was a tedious repetition of the same life lessons that she never seems to learn from.  But then we get to her death scene and it goes on and on.  Everyone who was anyone comes in, tells her how they turned out and to reminder her of what a gal she was.  Each person then takes a postcard from her collection.  (This image in and of itself is vivid and very touching: the only woman to survive the falls is reduced to selling postcards on the sidewalk.)  But the music and the repetitious way each person is used gets old fast.  I found myself counting how many postcards there were after the second one was taken.  

Mary Testa and the Ensemble of
Queen of the Mist
Prior to the nearly 20 minute death scene there are other repetitions that don't really work, either.  Toward the beginning of the show, we find out that (as a testament to her fearlessness) Anna faced down a tiger.  It is a brief song/scene, which was interesting, but not as memorable as other parts of the show.  This is not good, because the image of that tiger comes up again several times, and you start losing track of why it is important, when it seemed like such a toss off at the start.  Another such thing is that Anna adamantly refuses to tell about exactly how it felt inside the barrel as it made its biggest plunge.  She refuses to tell it, because as she sees it, those moments are all she has to hold for future pay off.  Trouble is, after a half dozen attempts to get it out of her, it gets frustrating that she won't even hint, and then, to top it all off, when she finally does tell how it feels, it is the very definition of anti-climax.  I literally said, "That was it?" when she revealed this allegedly valuable secret.  Yes, the play would be much stronger if the second act were condensed (20 minutes off, please) and other details that turn out to be important are strengthened from the get go.  (I would still keep the intermission where it is.  It give the piece some sense of climax and edge.  And the audience needs to decompress and gather its thoughts, too.

Note the fixture, the hanging gauze and
 the seating in the background

Visually, this production is always stimulating, smart and often quite stunning to watch.  Kathryn Rohe's costumes help keep us in the period and help delineate the numerous characters each ensemble member plays, and the relative unremarkable regularity of them actually helps us to focus on the characters.  The sound, designed by Walter Trarbach, is perfect - you never miss a word, lyric, note or sound effect.  Designed by Sandra Goldmark, the scenery makes the very most of the limited space that the Gym at Judson offers.  The seating runs down both sides of the space, long-wise, so that a thin strip of playing area is in front of all of us, with more traditionally theatrical spaces at the short ends of the space.  The gray, gauzy panels and scrim that covers the musicians are adorned with vintage postcard edging, and theatrical gargoyle faces; the main scrim at the far end of the space has the ghostly shadow of a Niagara Falls postcard from the turn of the last century.  The colors and adornments suggest both a long ago dream and dramatic theatricality, as well as the mist of the title.  And R. Lee Kennedy's brilliant lighting helps us glide back and forth between the present and the past, between reality and dream, without ever pulling our focus away from where it should be.  These design elements also figure into the choreography and staging.

Anna in the mist of the falls

Scott Rink's dances range from period-piece dances that have a vaudeville feel to them, to some exciting modern movement that has the ensemble walking in straight lines back and forth, changing direction on whim, as they sing to the woman who the play is all about.  These moments are heavily psychological, and play into the notion that Anna lives constantly in the ebb and flow of the waters she famously commanded.  And when Rink has the ensemble gather around Anna, they swirl and churn like the raging river and mini whirlpools that lead to the edge of the great falls.

The real beauty of this production, though, is the intelligent, provocative and endlessly creative staging by Jack Cummings III.  First and foremost, having the audience arranged to view Anna's life like we are spectators at her stunt on both sides of the river, is genius and poignant.  It is also out of necessity, give the size of the space the show is in.  That necessity, like a smaller budget, also gains the peace some real theatrical moments.  For example, when Anna speaks to the press or to the public at one of her appearances, she is always at a far end, and the ensemble is as far from her as they can get.  Other times, we are made to use our imagination, as when Anna describes the building of her barrel, and the cast acts out the construction all around her.  No actual barrel ever materializes, but you sure can "see" it anyway.  One of the more clever bits has ensemble member mapping out the rocks, hidden branches and whirlpools, while atop small, wheeled planks with large poles to steer the boards, and make it look like they are actually navigating the fast moving waters.

The waters are being tested

The cast is easily one of the most talented in the city these days, too.  Theresa McCarthy can hold the audience well, whether she is goody-goody Jane, sister to Anna, or as a foul-mouthed Taylor impersonator. Likewise, the boyish good looks and strong voice of Stanley Bahorek help to make each of his several small roles unique and engaging.  Tally Sessions does a fine job as presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz, in one of the show's oddly lighter moments.  Unwittingly, Anna Taylor drives the man to do his deed, yelling at him to take charge of his life in order to be someone, just like she did.  Of course, her actions end up making him the famous one at the Buffalo Exposition, not her!  DC Anderson gets to show off his versatility and range in a variety of roles, including one particularly nasty manager of Anna's. And the terrific Julia Murney does her typical amazing work in a variety of roles.  Her stand out moment is as Carrie Nation, set to speak at an event for women with Anna.  Again, Anna's lack of grace ends up making her the fool.  Murney's presence, timing and singing come the closest to matching Ms. Testa's strength.  What really makes this ensemble work, though, is its ease at working together, as a unit and as back up for each other when one is the focus at the moment.  Nice to see, really.

Andrew Samonsky and Mary Testa

As the closest thing to a male companion Anna will ever have, Andrew Samonsky is an excellent yin to Mary Testa's yang.  He convincingly goes toe-to-toe with her, an easy match for her dominance and every one of her maddening quirks.  He creates an interesting character that lets us decide for ourselves whether or not he's the bad guy Anna thinks he is.  Samonsky is a presence all by himself with a powerful voice and and an easy way that draws you in.

The centerpiece of this production is, of course, Mary Testa, who is giving the performance of her career to date.  She owns the stage like the star she has become.  No longer can we think of her as just a go-to gal for smart-ass sidekicks, or funny villains.  No, Testa proves once and for all that she has ALL of the goods and a versatility that one associates with names like Murphy, Lansbury and Martin.

As I said above, she is a risk taker, just like the character she is playing these days.  The difference here is that Mary Testa is no one-note stunt woman.  She is making her mark in the world that should last a much longer time.  When you see her name on the marquee, jump right into that theatrical barrel with her.  With Testa as your captain you can't fail to end up having one hell of a ride.

(Production photos by Carol Rosegg)

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