Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 27 April 2019
The remarkable story of Anna Edson Taylor should be known to everyone. She is arguably one of history’s most fearless and extraordinary women and yet, tragically, she lies forgotten in a pauper’s grave.
In 1901, on her 63rd birthday, the astonishing Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a barrel that she designed. She was the first person ever to survive the fall and is still the only woman who has done it and walked away unscathed.
Taylor thought that the daredevil stunt would make her rich and famous but, after spending 20 years looking for the recognition she deserved, it destroyed her.
Anna was the subject of Michael John LaChiusa’s award-winning 2011, Off-Broadway hit Queen of the Mist which has finally made its European premiere, opening at London’s Jack Studio Theatre.
Pint of Wine Theatre Company has done a spectacular job of bringing this compelling chamber musical to the stage but LaChiusa’s rather thin story does bob along in the shallows rather than build to a momentous climax.
However, there’s no faulting the exemplary performances from an ensemble of seven, headed by operatically trained Trudi Camilleri, and aided by a superb seven-piece orchestra under the direction of award-winning Jordan Li-Smith.
When we first meet Camilleri’s Taylor she is on her uppers after failing to profit from a series of classes she has tried to set up in various towns on America’s Eastern Seaboard. The teacher is something of a hustler, charming landlords into renting her rooms and business premises and then failing to pay them rent. It’s just one failure after another and she’s desperate.
She hits on the idea of doing something spectacular that will get her name into the history books and make her a fortune. And this resourceful and enterprising woman comes up with a doozy of an idea.
She designs a barrel, which is named Queen of the Mist, and she plans to take it over Horseshoe Falls – at nearly 170-feet, the largest of the three waterfalls that form Niagara Falls – and survive. Everyone laughs at the idea. No man had ever made it back alive let alone a woman.
She finds herself an agent, Frank Russell, tells him that the stunt will make $1 million and the pair print leaflets and postcards to publicise the event. At The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where she is hawking her scheme, she meets an indecisive and agitated man with what looks like an injured hand. She tells him that he must act on his intentions.
But he turns out to be anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, who first appeared onstage in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins.
And, here in LaChiusa’s script, her advice prompts him to go ahead and shoot the visiting US President, William McKinley, with a gun hidden under his ‘bandage’. Oops.
Undeterred the single-minded Taylor carries out her history-making act – but the deed is only half the show. What follows is a fight for recognition, attention and money.
She tries to use the emancipation card, advocating that the act strikes a major blow for women’s rights and freedoms, she hits the lecture circuit and holds press conferences.
No-one is impressed. In fact, they appeared bored.
Camilleri captures Taylor’s boldness, idealism and vulnerability as we follow the story through her eyes.
It’s shocking that her astounding act of bravery is overshadowed by the failed attempts of men to do the same stunt, purely because she’s a woman.
Will Arundell gives a well rounded turn as her roguish manager, Frank Russell.
He doesn’t portray him just as an opportunist hoping to make a buck or two, but as someone who came to respect and admire his client, so much so that he couldn’t bare to watch as she went over the falls in case she died.
The remaining cast – Tom Blackmore, Andrew Carter (what a tremendous voice), Emily Juler (hilarious as a foul-mouthed Taylor stand-in for Russell’s money-making schemes), Conor McFarlane as Czolgosz, and Emma Ralston – pitch in playing a variety of supporting roles and are uniformly melodic.
This is a fine production but it peaks a little too soon. Taylor’s death-defying feat is followed by a second half that lacks the impetus of the opening act but, nonetheless, is just as engrossing.
LaChiusa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, has come up with a lively selection of musical numbers that work well in the production although none of them will stick in your head.
A fascinating subject who is brought to life by Trudi Camilleri’s buoyant central performance.
Queen of the Mist plays at the Jack Studio Theatre until April 27.
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