I've always admired the work of Michael John LaChiusa. Let me rephrase that: I've always felt that I should admire his work. I appreciate the ambition of his material choices and his uncompromising focus on creating meaningful, challenging works: The Wild Party, Hello Again, Marie Christine, See What I Wanna See, Bernarda Alba. All are shows that reach beyond the ordinary toward something of genuine substance.
But here's the cold hard truth: I don't actually like any of LaChiusa's shows, or at least not when I've seen them live, nor am I likely to revisit the cast recordings beyond my initial listen. There's a part of me that feels like a real cretin admitting this, but I think it's because his shows are usually so cerebral. I've often said that, if he ever found his heart, he could be much more of a major player, crafting works that both challenge and engage. (I do hear that Giant shows great promise, and I look forward to seeing how the show develops during and after its upcoming run in Dallas.)
Alas, Queen of the Mist is not the piece that will change my attitude toward LaChiusa and his shows. Presented by The Transport Group at the Gym at Judson Memorial Church, Queen of the Mist would seem to be a conscious effort on LaChiusa's part to craft a show with humor and heart. Unfortunately, from where I sat, he didn't really accomplish either objective very well. Queen of the Mist centers around the story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale. LaChiusa begins Taylor's tale with an extended opening sequence to establish her character: she's ambitious, willful, iconoclastic, and a bit clueless. The sequence is both ambitious and economical, but it is nonetheless both tuneless and dull.
That said, much of LaChuisa's music for Queen of the Mist borders on the tuneful, flirts with the memorable. There are jaunty chorus numbers and heartfelt anthems. In "Laugh at the Tiger," Taylor and her sister relive a childhood anecdote in which they took a trip to the circus, during which Annie and her sister were frightened by a tiger. Taylor exhorts her sister to move beyond the fear that they felt on that seemingly pivotal day, and the number introduces both a narrative and a musical theme that LaChiusa revisits throughout the show. A potentially interesting device, but the execution fell flat, partly because the metaphor seemed forced and a tad juvenile.
More damning, perhaps, were LaChiusa's awkward attempts at injecting the show with humor. It seemed as though LaChiusa was responding to charges that his shows are grim by consciously trying to write in musical-comedy mode. But rather than allowing the humor to arise from the characterizations, LaChiusa falls back on some rather dust-ridden comic constructions. During one scene, Annie Edson Taylor approaches a cooper to get him to build her all-important barrel:
Anna: And I will pay you handsomely.
Mr. Rudetsky: I will not be paid to build that which you shall die in. I will not be a part of your death or anyone's death. How much do you pay?
In another scene, Annie soliloquizes about her prospects should she successfully navigate the Niagara rapids: "It will make me very rich. It will make me very famous. It could also make me very, very dead." LaChiusa seems to have taken his comedic inspiration from the Borscht Belt.
Overall, Queen of the Mist, and its fundamental flaws, reminded me of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, another show with a potentially interesting conceit, but a lack of compelling drama or flesh-and-blood characterizations. Both Road Show and Queen of the Mist explore people who are on the penumbra of fame and success, but both are lacking in passion and empathic possibilities. Road Show librettist John Weidman shares with LaChiusa a continued difficulty in extracting pathos from his subject matter.
The shows also share central characters who are rather difficult to like, and neither show succeeds in overcoming that difficulty. The indomitable Mary Testa, who plays Annie Edson Taylor in Queen of the Mist, is about as strong a choice as you're likely to find for the role, but she seemed here to be pushing for both laughs and, at the end of the show, pathos. The effort showed, and only brought into greater focus the fact that the show itself wasn't working in her favor.