Friday, November 11, 2011

Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChiusa is unique among musical writers. He often writes the book and the lyrics and the music for his shows, and his interests are wide and varied: perception, fame, sex, lack of sex, love, lack of love, self-deception, filicide, ambition, lust, and revenge. His music is often gorgeous, if sometimes difficult on first listen, and he generally brings a unique and elucidating point of view to his subjects, which span many time periods and plotlines.

Queen of the Mist, currently being presented by the Transport Group, is not one of LaChiusa's more impressive efforts, though it has many strengths: an interesting main character, Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live; some beautiful songs, including "There Is Greatness in Me" and "Letter to Jane"; a compelling metaphor in the tiger that inhabits Taylor's imagination throughout her life; Mary Testa giving an impressive performance in the lead role; and Theresa McCarthy, lovely as Taylor's sister.

However, LaChiusa is on much-treaded ground here, and Queen of the Mist has little new to say. Fame and obsession are popular theatrical themes, and the show has echoes of Ragtime and Assassins. (I imagine anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley, would be nonplussed to find himself featured in not one but two musicals written decades after his execution.) The show also fails to land emotionally. Taylor is not a likeable character, and her relationships with her sister and her manager are too thinly drawn for the audience to care much when they fail. 

The score is perhaps LaChiusa's most accessible but not one of his most intriguing. And the lyrics are surprisingly bland and predictable coming from the man who wrote the brilliant "When It Ends" for The Wild Party and "The Greatest Practical Joke" for See What I Wanna See. LaChiusa is capable of limning a character in a line or two--as when the spoiled college boy in Hello Again asks if he looks like Bobby Kennedy or the Young Wife in the same show sings during an adulterous encounter in a movie theatre where Follow the Fleet is playing, "I am morally bankrupt" and then adds "I hate Ginger Rogers"--but that level of acuity is missing here.

For all of my reservations, however, I would still cautiously recommend this show. While it does not live up to the high bar established by LaChiusa's other works, it still offers much that is worth seeing and hearing.

(press ticket, first row)

No comments: