Words and Music: Michael John LaChiusa
Director: Dom O’Hanlon
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
One of the greatest scientific achievements of the day or a ludicrous stunt, Anna Edson Taylor’s ascent over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 wasn’t quite the ticket to worldwide fame and recognition that she had hoped it would be. Despised for its vulgarity, shunned because she was a woman and rapidly forgotten, Michael John LaChiusa’s new musical which has its UK debut at the Charing Cross Theatre hopes to restore the firebrand reputation of this pioneer.
Forced to move in with her sister in her 40s, Anna Edson Taylor is close to rock bottom with little hope of supporting herself in the future when Niagara Falls calls to her. Anna conceives a way to travel through the dangerous rapids in a vessel of her own construction using science to defeat nature and guaranteeing her future. But the future has other ideas.
LaChiusa’s musical has all the touches of those late 1950s / 1960s musicals like Gypsy and Funny Girl that follow the fortunes of a star in the making. Although well passed her childhood, LaChiusa’s version of Anna has that same scrappy determination and self-belief as Louise and Fanny, with all three working their way through vaudeville-like numbers on their way to the big time. Anna is interesting because her talent is confined to one single act of bravery and as a much older woman at the beginning of her story the avenues open to her confine her success.
‘There is Greatness in Me’ is Anna’s biggest number and only the second in the show, setting the course for what is to come and there are useful insights into the greedy experience of fame where the artist’s need for money forces them to compromise their principles while trying to retain the fickle interest of the public. Anna also loses sight of relationships with her sister Jane and original manager Mr Russell that haunt her throughout Act Two.
With so much to cram in and a plot covering over 30-years of Anna’s life some of the central relationships are too quickly formed for the weight later placed on them, and while Anna is an admirably character she’s not always a particularly likeable one that can make her various self-inflicted hurts harder to retain interest in or sympathy for. The second Act, confuses the timelines with throwaway references to one, two and ten years since the Niagara event that require leaps in Anna’s experience, while the final more abstract section of the show is overlong without covering any new ground.
Director Dom O’Hanlon has captured the feeling of the era very well and using LaChiusa’s music there is a feel of old Broadway-does-Victoriana to Queen of the Mist that is reflected nicely through Tara Usher and Lemington Ridley’s set and costume design, referencing the barrel interior and the idea of Anna’s act as part of the scientific collectibles and curios of the onstage shelving. Blocking on this traverse stage is a problem however, and while O’Hanlon has the Company simultaneously face both banks of seats, too often the leading lady favours one side of the audience with her back to the other for most of Act One particularly.
Trudi Camilleri has really made the role of Anna her own, a determined and sometimes difficult woman who sees the world slightly differently. Camilleri reveals many layers to Anna, the scientific mind determined to logically solve her problems but unable to relate to the crowds she so desires, refusing to tell her story in full. But Camilleri helps the audience to admire Anna using the music to highlight her suffering and how easily she has been erased from history.
Will Arundel offers excellent support as Mr Russell and his relationship with Anna, though rapidly established, becomes quite touching as it starts to crumble. Emma Ralston in a number of roles is particularly amusing as a Women’s Suffrage speaker disapproving of Anna’s squalid vocation while Emily Juler, Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter provide a vivid supporting cast
Anna’s attempts to cling to fame for one notable act years before may seem remarkably prescient in our age of disposable stars and although Queen of the Mist significantly extends its advertised runtime to around 2 hours and 40-minutes without quite enough drama to sustain it, her daring and audacity shine though the show.
Runs Until: 5 October 2019 | Image: Stephen Russell