BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A long-forgotten celebrity of yesteryear, Annie Edson Taylor was the first person ever to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. That was back in 1901 and she was 63 at the time. Sad to say, her fame was fleeting and Annie never made a fortune from her feat.
Now Annie successfully returns to life as the staunch heroine of “Queen of the Mist,” an imaginative new musical that is smartly crafted and distinctively composed by Michael John LaChiusa.
Premiering on Sunday at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, the musical receives a typically inventive production from Transport Group Theatre Company, which stages offbeat shows such as the Broadway-bound “Lysistrata Jones” and last year’s sexy revival of LaChiusa’s own “Hello Again.”
Before going any further, let’s mention that I have long been a big fan of LaChiusa and his works like “The Wild Party” and “See What I Wanna See.” While LaChiusa’s songwriting is contemporary in its craftsmanship, he is adept at evoking musical styles reflecting the times and locales of his stories.
Although the mostly sung-through “Queen of the Mist” is very much modern-day musical theater in form, LaChiusa’s often lovely score suggests the parlor songs and Tin Pan Alley favorites of the Teddy Roosevelt era. The propulsive quality that characterizes LaChiusa’s music crisply drives the narrative.
His two-act story traces the middle-aged Annie’s failed attempts to make a living as a teacher of dance, hygienics and music, all the while insisting “There is Greatness In Me” to the sheriffs escorting her out of several towns. Alone and broke but expansive as ever, the indomitable Annie lands in Buffalo, where she conceives her “scientific” plan to ride Niagara Falls.
“You’re a crazy woman,” says Frank, her new-found manager. “I am a phenomenon,” she declares.
The first closes in a surging rush of glistening music and swift choreography as Annie goes over the falls.
The second act poignantly details how Annie’s fame soon fades through her own misjudgments. Yet out of Annie’s sad ending, LaChiusa forges a radiant, even triumphant musical conclusion that celebrates her fortitude.
Beautifully arranged by Michael Starobin for a six-member orchestra and splendidly sung by seven adept performers who portray many people in the thoughtful story, LaChiusa’s well-knit score and cogent text features several exceptional passages. My favorite is a jaunty contrapuntal duet, “Types Like You” for Annie and her manager, but no doubt others will get a kick out of a meaningful Sondheim homage during the Pan-American Exposition sequence.
Apologies for writing such insider baseball, which leaves me too little space to review director Jack Cummings III’s typically striking production. Old-fashioned lacy visuals overhead designed by Sandra Goldmark recall the 1900s epoch and Niagara’s misty vistas. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting contributes atmospheric drama. Fleet choreography by Scott Rink contributes considerably to the show’s flow, especially so during the scenes involving Niagara Falls.
With viewers facing each other on sharply-graded grandstands flanking the performing area – your possible vertigo suggests Annie’s awesome experience – the actors do handsomely by their characters.
Outstanding amid their several roles: Andrew Semonsky snazzily portrays Annie’s wily manager Frank; Julia Murney sharply wields the vinegary Carrie Nation’s hatchet; Theresa McCarthy sweetly depicts Annie’s sister; effectively costumed by Kathryn Rohe, Stanley Behorek, D.C. Anderson and Tally Sessions contribute other vivid turns.
Melding a rapt look with a grand manner, Mary Testa movingly invests Annie with a doughty bravery that becomes pensive during her final years. Testa’s trumpeting voice has turned somewhat metallic but otherwise her forceful ways and excellent acting skills bring this unlikely heroine to wonderful life.
“Queen of the Mist” continues through Nov. 20 at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South, New York. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.transportgroup.org.