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.
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