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Review - Queen of The Mist


"You're an insane woman," a character says to the protagonist in Michael John LaChiusa's intriguing new musical, Queen of The Mist.

"No," replies the actress playing the role, Mary Testa, with a simple, but firm and confident matter-of-factness. "I am a phenomenon."

The sharply accelerated speed of fame, fueled by ever increasing advances in communication, motivated many a would-be phenomenon at the dawn of the 20th Century. Some sought instant glory by riding a barrel down Niagara Falls. None survived the stunt until 1901, when Anna Edson Taylor, encased in an oak and iron barrel of her own design, celebrated her 63rd birthday by making it to the bottom with nary a scratch; her most serious injury a head wound suffered when assistants were prying her out.

LaChiusa doesn't make a heroine out of Taylor, as he presents her as a proud and somewhat arrogant widow ("There is greatness in me" she sings repeatedly.) who, humiliated by a lifelong resume of failed professions, attempts to escape poverty and creditors by using her scientific knowledge to accomplish a feat which would most assuredly gain her a book contract and a lucrative speaking tour. Despite her successful plunge, it's her insistence on presenting herself to the public her own way instead of giving the people what they want that sinks her chance for fame, as the author holds her up as an example of America's habit of celebrating achievements only when they prove sufficiently entertaining.

But in Transport Group's evocative production, LaChiusa, director Jack Cummings III and their leading lady do a remarkable job of making this dry, serious-minded woman emphatically musical, if not completely empathetic. Testa, an actress whose dramatic skills are often overlooked in favor of her talent for broad comedy, is handed what must be the meatiest role of her New York stage career and delivers a fascinating portrayal of an American dreamer who might have been too much of an individual to capture the nation's imagination. Her Anna is convinced of her indomitability, trying to sway others to her side with a forceful confidence that is her means of survival. The composer/bookwriter/lyricist supplies numerous opportunities for her powerful vocals to soar with vibrancy and her comic precision to be used just enough to serve the character.

LaChiusa's dramatically rich chamber score, orchestrated by Michael Starobin for French horn, violin, woodwinds, bass, keyboard and cello, is peppered with period melodies that emulate the music hall spirit of the time. Aside from Andrew Samonsky, who is excellent as the crafty manager who tries orchestrating Taylor's stunt for maximum public exposure (including an appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where she unwittingly pep talks a nervous Leon Czolgosz, played by Tally Sessions, into going ahead with his plan to assassinate President McKinley) the rest of the company doubles as a singing ensemble and various briefly seen characters. The clarion vocals of Julia Murney are thrilling to hear in her portrayal of temperance advocate Carrie Nation and, along with Sessions, there is fine work by DC Anderson, Stanley Bahorek and Theresa McCarthy.

Performed in The Gym at Judson, Sandra Goldmark's set has the audience seated on two opposite sides of the playing space, as if on risers watching a parade. It's a bit awkward as much of the action takes place on a small stage set on one side, which none of the seats directly face. Nevertheless, the music hall atmosphere she creates with costume designer Kathryn Rohe and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy is very effective.

With Queen of The Mist, Michael John LaChiusa once again shows himself to be one of the most adventurous dramatists we currently have writing for the musical stage and Mary Testa is given a rare chance to star in a piece that properly pushes her abundant musical dramatic talents into the spotlight.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Mary Testa, Stanley Bahorek, D.C. Anderson and Tally Sessions; Bottom: Mary Testa and Julia Murney.

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The grosses are out for the week ending 11/6/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: VENUS IN FUR (11.7%), GODSPELL (9.7%), MAN AND BOY (3.5%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (2.1%), ROCK OF AGES (2.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.9%), MEMPHIS (1.3%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (0.7%), THE LION KING (0.1%),

Down for the week was: CHINGLISH (-17.8%), MAMMA MIA! (-17.3%), Hugh Jackman, BACK ON BROADWAY (-10.6%), CHICAGO (-9.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-6.5%), SEMINAR (-5.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-4.7%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-4.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-4.5%), MARY POPPINS (-3.6%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (-3.5%), WICKED (-3.4%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.8%), SISTER ACT (-2.0%), WAR HORSE (-1.9%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (-1.6%), FOLLIES (-0.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-0.5%),

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