Review: Queen of the Mist
Trudi Camilleri as Anna Edson Taylor - photo by Daniel Penfold
Trudi Camilleri as Anna Edson Taylor
Queen of the Mist is based on the astounding and outrageous true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who in 1901 on her 63rd birthday set out to be the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design.
Queen of the Mist explores the fickle world of celebrity and sensationalism with an unconventional heroine determined not to live an ordinary life.
With a soaring score that incorporates turn-of-the-century themes with LaChiusa's insightful and engaging style, this award-winning musical is the story of how one woman risked death so that she could live.
This production marks the European Premiere of the show.
The original 2011 Off-Broadway production won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical and was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical.
Presented by arrangement with R&H Theatricals Europe.
If you've stopped off to digest the synopsis for this musical, you'll already know the event that led to one woman's fame in the first few years of the twentieth century.
What you won't understand - and neither do I after watching the show - is just why the main character's first name has been changed to 'Anna' rather than using her real name which, from all the accounts I've read about her, seems to have been 'Annie'.
The show's programme has some well-written biographical notes about this woman's life and these refer to her as 'Annie'.
And there are archival photographs of Ms Edson Taylor with her barrel, her tombstone and a shot of her selling her postcards after her hair-raising ride.
On all of those, we find the words 'Annie Edson Taylor' and the notes themselves similarly refer to that exact name.
Now it's just possible that I missed a line somewhere which unravelled this conundrum about the main character's name - but I don't think I did.
Of course, dramatic license allows for any number of changes to settings and characters, even when depicting real people - and that includes changing names.
However, I failed to identify the purpose behind the change here and it left me mystified and not a little irritated.
Charing Cross Theatre has been substantially and painstakingly remodelled into a traverse arrangement to deliver this show.
You might think of that type of stage as a thin walkway, almost like a long catwalk at a fashion show - and it is often formatted like that, sometimes necessitating regular head-turning for the audience as they follow the action.
Here, though, the audience sit in two blocks at either end of an almost square stage that gives ample room for dancing and movement, whilst preserving some aura of intimacy too and sensibly avoiding any audience discomfort.
There are times when we find ourselves staring at the actors' backs, but that doesn't impose any real restrictions in terms of the overall enjoyment of the piece.
Tara Usher's set design is relegated to the sides of the acting area with an elevated loft at one side housing the first-rate orchestra (though two members get relegated to stage level - perhaps due to lack of space above or, possibly, vertigo).
Neatly incorporated into this functional design are shelves packed with bric-a-brac, and pull-out drawers that provide different levels for the action.
And the wooden flooring has small gaps allowing uplighting from below to provide a hint of the roaring Niagara Falls.
Impressive and considered though it is, the overall style seems to have more in keeping with home furnishings of the 1960s or 1970s than evoking the era in which Ms Edson Taylor found fame.
Michael John LaChiusa's compositions, though, do encompass more than a nod to the early 20th century, with some lush, expressive and haunting elements that, while not exactly the kind that we hum on the way home, do breathe more than a touch of psychological drama into the venture.
Queen of the Mist has two well-defined sections - the first working up to the actual barrel ride over Niagara Falls, and the second focusing on the aftermath and highlighting Ms Edson Taylor's emotional and physical decline.
Trudi Camilleri, as Anna, is on stage for almost the entire piece and is thus the dominant presence as one might expect.
She inhabits the role perfectly delivering powerful and haunting songs, and making a well-defined, dramatically emotional descent into poverty, blindness and near obscurity come the second half.
Ms Camilleri is given splendid support by a top-notch ensemble who ably convince in the acting department as well as their formidable singing that impresses right from the first moments.
Annie Edson Taylor is described initially as an almost overbearing, overly self-confident woman.
But as we dig deeper into her story, we find a woman whose life seems to have been a poignant struggle with both her son and husband dying prematurely, and lack of money an ever-present concern and threat.
There's no doubt that she was also an immensely brave woman, though she obviously misjudged how to successfully convey her astonishing feat to the general public in terms they could appreciate.
Dom O'Hanlon's adept production more than does justice to a sad and touching story, one that most certainly deserves to be heard.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Charing Cross Theatre
Our show listing for Queen of the Mist
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