The story of Anna Edson Taylor and her successful attempt to cross Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 has always fascinated me, so when an opportunity arose to see the musical based on her story I had to see it.
Mrs Taylor (there’s no hint of a husband) is first shown living with her sister, where she lives beyond her means and longs for adventure (and money). Seeing a gap in the market and feeling she has science behind her, she seeks to do what no woman – or man – has done before: to go over the Falls and survive.
Michael John LaChiusa has created a score which in twenty songs weaves a harmonic narrative which works well in songs such as Anna’s There Is Greatness In Me in act one, or The Green (about the motivation of all public speakers to earn money) in act two.
Trudi Camilleri leads the cast with a set of pipes to rival the great Ethel Merman in a barn-storming turn that dominates proceedings. She convinces both as the selfish and arrogant adventuter, and the sad old woman facing destitution by the close of the show.
In a strong first half interesting relationships are explored between Anna and her straightlaced sister Jane (Emily Juler), and Anna and her showboating manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel, with whom Camilleri displays a cordial and warm frisson of friendship which suits both characters).
After the stunt/experiment is concluded, though, I found the second act a little indulgent and uneven, with one scene and number (Million Dollar Momma) adding little to the plot. Knowing that Anna survives removes any sense of tension and even the talk of an eroticised tiger doesn’t quite keep the pace moving, nor the reappearance of President McKinley’s assassin from act one, now a ghost.
The stage is in traverse with audience seating on each side, the sides of the set crammed with shelves of bric-a-brac and everyday detritus, with balconies holding the band (led by Connor Fogel) on one side, and the cast coming together on occasion to harmonise on the other.
Although this configuration can often work well, especially to suggest claustrophobia (such as in the interior of a barrel), the choice by director Dom O’Hanlon to stage songs back and forth between audience sides led to long stretches looking at the back of actors’ heads as they sang, which I found a little frustrating.
The beauty of this production is in the exquisite lighting design of Beth Gupwell, the period costumes of Lemington Ridley, and in the performance of the dynamic Camilleri and some of her supporting cast (Andrew Carter has a rolling bass as deep as the waters; Tom Blackmore – who also acts well as the nervous young soldier – has a fine tenor voice; Emma Ralston is a versatile alto).
I would personally trim the second act just a little and concentrate on Mrs Taylor’s great achievement, which remains notable even if money was her main motivator. I found myself craving more of this dynamic woman’s story long after Queen of the Mist ended.
Queen of the Mist continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 5 October 2019 and tickets can be purchased at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/queen-of-the-mist. Photo credits by Stephen Russell.