Tag Archives: Michael John LaChiusa

“Queen of the Mist” at the Charing Cross Theatre

A long-forgotten story is the odd subject matter for this musical from the estimable Michael John LaChiusa. In 1901, at the age of 63, Anna Edson Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design and managed to survive. Incredible as that may be, it isn’t much to work with. Somewhat magically, LaChiusa creates an unusually detailed exploration of a peculiar psychology with a unique draw – if you seek originality, this show has it by the tun.

Our heroine tackles sexism and ageism, while her impoverished status conflicts with a belief that she has “greatness within her”. While others consider her past her prime, Anna seeks her fortune with the world’s weirdest pension plan. Whether joining a rush of daredevils flocking to the falls is a scientific experiment or a stunt is much debated. So there’s inspiration for and resonance with our times balanced by a strong period feel (and an odd Zelig moment around the assassination of President McKinley) from an intelligent score, bursting with historic detail and Vaudevillian touches. Director Dom O’Hanlon does a great job doing justice to all of the above. But I’ve a suspicion none of it is the real driving force.

The Queen of the Mist is really about one woman. Anna is fascinating. But maybe she’s too original to tell us much about her times or our own? Smart, funny and full of contradictions (a radical Episcopalian!), she is truly formidable. It makes for an unusually focused show, but one that is occasionally claustrophobic.

O’Hanlon uses his talented performers expertly: Emily Juler deserves a special mention, playing Anna’s sister among other roles, while Andrew Carter’s voice is a real pleasure. And Will Arundell does well as Anna’s manager, making the role and their relationship complex. But the other characters barely need names, this is so much Anna’s show. It makes a daunting title role for Trudi Camilleri, who casts a suitably commanding presence. A model of clarity, Camilleri’s voice sounds raw rather than refined, running from exuberance to panic, including a good deal of pain. Defiance becomes the key note, not just for Anna – bravo Camilleri – but for this unconventional piece as a whole.

Trudi Camilleri in 'Queen of the Mist'
Trudi Camilleri

For while Anna may be interesting, she is far from likeable. One of the many beautiful musical refrains is that she doesn’t “delight” in the way a “quintessential hero” should; an observation (rather than a criticism) that holds for the whole show. Some of the most demanding moments of the score surround Anna’s mental stability. There’s the suggestion her daring deed damaged her head and she’s never far from being a desperate character, making the music especially febrile. A great deal is made of a childhood encounter with a tiger and she’s described as a “dangerous animal”.

It is the aftermath of events that interests LaChiusa most, and credit to O’Hanlon for respecting this. The music becomes progressively more adventurous. Anna’s sad demise takes a long time. Many an audience member might get restless and it requires guts to ignore that. Ending up as a piece about mortality, this mature musical will not be for all. But as the production comes to believe in Anna’s delusions of grandeur – the final tableau from O’Hanlon is effective and moving – it seems LaChiusa has created a perfect subject for his eccentric extravaganza.

Until 5 October 2019


Photos by Stephen Russell

“The Wild Party” at The Other Palace

The renamed St James Theatre, now in Lord Lloyd Webber’s portfolio, has the new raison d’être of trying out and refining musicals. And there’s the aim of starting conversations from artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills that warms a blogger’s heart. The first show, by Michael John LaChiusa, is a strong start, but a puzzle, too. Seen on Broadway in 2000, it already seems so cogently formed that there is little new to talk about.

The piece is experimental in that it is based on a poem – by Joseph McClure March – can anyone think of another musical apart from Cats with such a source? George C Wolfe’s book is structurally audacious and, while the scenario couldn’t be slimmer – someone holds a party, that’s it – the tension ratchets up and up. Both music and lyrics have little time for novices or a discernable eye on commercial success. The milieu here isn’t that familiar to a British audience (jokes, in particular, are a touch obscure) but LaChiusa’s knowledge of American music is obviously profound.

A good portion of the show is a series of introductions. Taking the lead is Queenie, a dancer in Vaudeville, brilliantly portrayed by the legendary Frances Ruffelle, who gives this tart-with-a-heart appropriate depth. Her common law husband, played by John Owen-Jones – also tremendous – ensures the show is not one for coulrophobics. This complicated relationship is the vehicle for exploring obsession and dependence.

John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt
John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt

Presenting other partygoers gives the rest of the ensemble a chance to shine. Dex Lee is particularly strong as the arch hedonist Jackie, a sophisticate who turns bestial. And, as Queenie’s best friend Victoria Hamilton-Barritt really gets her teeth into a juicy role. It would be hard to sacrifice any of these characters… but maybe more focus might have made the show more enjoyable? Combining high and low life and a mix of ages, races and sexualities has a point but means there’s a lot to handle here. And don’t forget a moral. Like many works of art about libertines, The Wild Party is a warning. When the bootleg gin arrives, complete with bathtub on stage, it would make Hogarth proud.

The venue’s aim as an experimental home is fulfilled for Drew McOnie. While his acclaimed choreography adds enormously to what could be a static affair, his remarkably assured debut as a director is the real story. The piece calls for strong acting and McOnie secures it. There’s a cutting pathos to many of the affairs. And a crazed wish for love, sex, drugs and ambition, with a scary intensity that McOnie doesn’t spare us from.

Until 1 April 2017


Photos by Scott Rylander