Anna Edson Taylor, a struggling 63-year-old schoolteacher, threw caution to the wind in 1901, plunged over Niagara Falls in a barrel and lived to tell about it. Instant celebrity resulted, but she just as quickly plunged into obscurity. Until now, that is, as prolific musical maker Michael John LaChiusa has taken up Taylor’s cause with “Queen of the Mist.” An unusual story, a provocative score and inventive staging by Jack Cummings III combine to make this an intriguing offering from the Transport Group, buoyed by Mary Testa as the stubbornly contrary Anna.
Testa has made a name for herself over the past 30 years working frequently with LaChiusa and William Finn while also attracting attention (and Tony nominations) in mainstream revivals of “On the Town” and “42nd Street.” Testa’s oversized talent and ferocious intensity, however, have at times overpowered her playmates. LaChiusa has written to her strengths; those wild comedic powers are all in view, but tempered by the dramatic requirements of the role. Testa shows how wide her range is in the final scenes.
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The leading lady — given star billing on the houseboards, though not in the program — is ably supported by a cast of six. Andrew Samonsky does a fine job as Frank Russell, Taylor’s manager. Samonsky, who was a replacement Lt. Cable in the recent “South Pacific” (and played the role on the PBS broadcast), has a strong voice and holds his own against Testa. The others play multiple roles, acquitting themselves well in one or two featured spots. Theresa McCarthy, who spends most of the evening as Anna’s respectable sister, stands out in her overbroad second act scene as a foul-mouthed and very funny pretender in a blonde wig.
LaChiusa (“Marie Christine,” “The Wild Party”) has developed a reputation for shows that are more esoteric than involving. “Queen of the Mist” breaks the pattern: Here is an earthy, tabloid story of emancipation and celebrity with plenty of humor. Tale seems to spring from the author’s roots in upstate Chautauqua, N.Y.; Taylor aspired to recognition by the Chautauqua Institution, the 19th century cultural citadel.
Score is not only intelligent but more tuneful than recent LaChiusa efforts. Michael Starobin provides a strong orchestration for six pieces, including an effective French horn.
Director Cummings’ Transport Group, which delights in non-traditional playing spaces, returns to the Gym at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, scene of their June triumph “Lysistrata Jones.” Stage is configured as a rectangle with bleachers on the two long sides, allowing Cummings and choreographer Scott Rink to stage the action effectively in tennis court fashion.
The problem with many one-shot celebrities in our culture is that there is sometimes no second act. That is a bit of a problem here; after Taylor shoots the falls, there’s relatively little left to happen in the less-involving and overlong second act. Fortunately, this is alleviated by some high-powered turns (like McCarthy’s) and a strong finish.
LaChiusa’s musings on fame and celebrity have resonance, and not only with respect to the long-forgotten Taylor. The author also introduces us to a deranged anarchist at the 1901 Buffalo Exposition, who immediately after his (presumably fictional) exchange with Taylor goes off and shoots the President. The assassin was front page news until his execution, and then faded from memory. Nowadays, the once notorious Leon Czolgosz is known solely as a character in another modern musical, “Assassins” — so much so that he gets a gasp of recognition from the audience some 110 years after his one, mad act.