Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Queen of the Mist contains a second-act song that critiques its heroine Anna Edson Taylor’s lackluster performance on the lecture circuit recounting her 1901 trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The lyrics ask how she’s managed to make such an inherently thrilling adventure sound so “tedious, monotonous, repetitive, and not fun.” It’s an apt critique of the show itself, directed by Elizabeth Margolius in this Firebrand production starring Barbara E. Robertson as Taylor. (Full disclosure: I saw the show’s final preview performance before opening.)
LaChiusa tries to portray Anna (sometimes called “Annie”) as a misunderstood genius ahead of her time brought low by a patriarchal society that demands women be ruled by men and not look for happiness outside marriage and children. But his script makes Anna come off as childish and spoiled rather than remarkable or forward-thinking. Her insistence that her “haters” are people who despise “artists” and “thinkers” is pure delusion: Anna’s haters are the people she tries to swindle, including well-meaning family members. Queen asks its audience to spend two and a half hours with a protagonist who is obnoxious and unchanging.
Anna’s not the only one-note woman. Carrie Nation (Liz Chidester) is a mean-girl harridan. Anna’s sister Jane (Neala Barron) is a homemaker with the depth of Betty Crocker. Finally, there’s an unnamed burlesque floozy (also Barron) who evokes Mae West, minus the wit and charisma. For a musical that purports to be about a remarkably singular woman, it’s thin gruel indeed. The primary fault lies in the script, but it’s exacerbated by Margolius’s ensemble and the heightened, melodramatic acting style it deploys throughout. Between the dialogue and the direction, Queen is pure cheese.
As Anna’s manager (and lover?), Frank, Max Cervantes never seems convincingly beguiled by his client. Initially Frank takes a hard pass when Anna asks him to be her manager, but he inexplicably changes his mind in short order. Like everyone else, Frank is saddled with laughably torrid dialogue. Consider such melodramatic gems such as “I couldn’t bear to watch you die, it was too much to bear, dammit!” or “You’re a coward, dammit!” or (my personal favorite) “WHO STOLE MY BARREL?” Then there’s the awkward mixed metaphor in Anna’s startling second-act declaration: “You pointed out a door was open and I escaped by the chimney flue.” Yes, it’s a takeoff on a well-known proverb, but it’s also impossible to hear without thinking of Anna stuffed into a chimney the same way she was stuffed into the barrel, and it renders ridiculous what is intended to be a serious moment.
The most annoying thing about Queen, though, is its failure to address the big event. The show is a tease: It’s about going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, except it’s really not because we never hear a word about the actual experience. On her speaking tour, Taylor is confused when people ask her to describe how it felt to defy death and plummet hundreds of feet into a roiling abyss. Why does she make the unbelievably peculiar decision not to talk about the thing that she decided to do so she could make money talking about it? LaChiusa never explains.
LaChiusa’s score is not without merit. Firebrand’s small ensemble under Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s musical direction delivers a lovely sound. When the cast sings of Niagara’s mesmerizing, lethal allure and the ancient Native American lore surrounding it, Queen shines. So too during “Break Down the Door,” a banging production number about temperance led by Chidester’s pile-driving Carrie Nation. But Robertson struggles with pitch throughout, especially when the notes hit the upper register.
Moreover, Margolius uses far too much stylized slo-mo in her blocking. It feels like the actors are slogging through invisible pudding for a good quarter of the proceedings. The Fogmaster 5,000 gets a likewise heavy workout, which is to be expected with a show that literally has the word “mist” in the title. Still, the stage fog often is so pervasive it’s difficult to see the actors.
There’s a great story in Taylor’s endeavor. We don’t get that here. You have heard of jumping the shark? This is a show that jumps the entire falls. v