“There is greatness in me,” Annie Edson Taylor sings in Queen
of the Mist, a new bio musical written and
composed by Michael John LaChiusa and given a tennis match of a production by
The Transport Group. Taylor, the first woman to survive going over Niagara
Falls in a barrel, is the subject and driving force of Queen of the
Mist, which may explain why the dramatic
engine of this lengthy, monotonous musical sputters so often.
Taylor may be convinced that there is greatness in her, and
LaChiusa may even feign agreement, but there’s little proof on hand in Queen
of the Mist. As we watch middle-aged con
woman Taylor work her way around the country, being evicted at every stop for
not paying her rent, her claims to greatness seem based on slender evidence.
Until, that is, she hooks up with promoter Frank Russell, designs the barrel
over which she’ll shoot the falls (“Cradle or coffin?” wonders one song) and
then dreams of running her hands through the piles of cash that will cushion
her old age. But the promises of the first act, which finds Taylor planning her
spectacle, aren’t kept in the second, which chronicles, with numbing
repetition, the fallout from her trip down the falls.
Taylor’s single-minded focus is to blame for much of the
musical’s dramatic inertia, but so is the awkward staging from director Jack
Cummings III. Returning to the gym at Judson Memorial Church, where the
Transport Group did better work (with better material) over the summer with Lysistrata
Jones, Cummings has opted to stage the show
between two banks of seats, focusing the action at either end and keeping the
audience’s heads swiveling like a metronome.
Backed by a supporting cast who barely register, Testa
seizes on Taylor’s blinkered obsession as the cornerstone of her performance,
and leaves nuances behind. Her Taylor is either an imperious, Constance
Collier-type or a bedraggled beggar; the shades between the two are never
convincingly sketched. In keeping with LaChiusa’s bold writing, Russell and the
various men and women who drift in and out of Taylor’s orbit—including the
assassin of President William McKinley, in a tangent that unnecessarily reminds
audiences of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins—are
too two-dimensional to make much of an impact.
There are moments in Queen of the Mist that hint at larger ambitions—a pointed exchange
about Taylor’s obvious hunger for fame and fortune, a lament about the role
women played in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—but neither LaChiusa nor
Cummings follow through on them. As a result, we have a wonderfully fraught
scene between Taylor and co-speaker Carrie Nation (Julia Murney, relieved to
have something to do) that eventually disintegrates as Taylor argues a little
too convincingly that what she accomplished and what Nation accomplished are on
the same level. Nation, a leader in the temperance movement that eventually
resulted in Prohibition, changed America. Taylor died penniless and in
semi-obscurity, having changed very little but the zealous men and women
determined to reprise her feat of physical daring. And like its heroine, Queen
of the Mist won’t have any lingering
effects on audiences, either.
Queen of the Mist
Through Dec. 4, The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson St. (at
Washington Sq. South), www.transportgroup.org; $58–$95.