On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, Anna Edson Taylor (1838-1921), encased in a specially constructed barrel, became the first human being to go over Niagara Falls and survive. In certain photographs of the period, her firmly set jaw and round, upholstered figure give her a distinct resemblance to the actress Mary Testa, whose astute comic sense and copper-plated vocal power have made her one of the delights of our stage in recent decades. The resemblance might have been what inspired writer-composer Michael John LaChiusa to create his new musical, Queen of the Mist (Gym at Judson), telling Taylor’s life story and titled after the name she gave to her barrel.
If the subject seems among the least likely imaginable for a piece of musical theater, the even more improbable result is that the unlikely subject has brought the best out of everybody involved. LaChiusa, whose more ambitious large-scale musicals have tended to be inchoate bundles of maddening digressions and loose ends, has here pursued a straightforward narrative line with grace and imagination, reaching upward musically toward opera and dipping down into turn-of-the-century saloon tunes while always sustaining the dramatic tone. Testa, taking on a leading role of nearly Wagnerian proportions, handles its demands with a wonderful, nuanced solidity. If some tarnish is audible in her upper register, that’s no surprise, given the enormous amount she’s required to sing.
Andrew Samonsky cuts a stylishly contrasting figure in the only other principal role, that of Taylor’s crooked, boozed-up manager. (He and Testa share the show’s most immediately winning number, a catchy piece of contrapuntal cynicism called “Types Like You.”) Everyone in the five-person ensemble that plays all the remaining roles gets one or two opportunities to score. Julia Murney, as Carrie Nation, tackles the biggest such chance, a ferocious temperance ballad, with showstopping zest.
Produced by Transport Group in the gymnasium space below Judson Church, with the cast moving fluidly across the bare floor between two banks of bleachers on which the audience sits, director Jack Cummings III’s production cannily finds still points but never lulls; its incessant flow keeps bringing you back, metaphorically, to the pivotal event of Taylor’s life. What was that life? Indomitable, individual, improbable, heroic, and heartbreakingly unsuccessful except for its one historic, preposterous moment of triumph. Although LaChiusa’s dialogue occasionally overflows its banks, in song he welds this unlikely mixture of qualities with puckishly rueful, compassionate finesse.