In 1901, when Anna Edson Taylor, a widowed 60-something teacher on the brink of destitution, became the first person to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel and emerge unscathed, everyone naturally wanted to know how it felt. But she was unable to articulate the sensation and the public almost immediately lost interest.
Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist is structured around the build-up to the big event and the emotionally scarring aftermath.
His score is poignant and sometimes catchy, though there’s a lack of plot in the second half. Director Dominic O’Hanlon steers the cast through these choppy waters with real skill.
LaChiusa doesn’t present Anna, a self-described “phenomenon”, as heroic or even particularly admirable except in terms of her scientific mind: she designed her own barrel. She’s contrary and foolish – very human. There’s a touch of Patricia Routledge to Trudi Camilleri’s performance as the thwarted grande dame, in her sturdily upholstered bustle gowns.
The cast is supported by impeccable musicians and musical direction by Jordan Li-Smith. Tara Usher’s design is a model of elegant economy. Emily Juler is affecting as Anna’s straight-laced but loving sister, and Conor McFarlane has a striking intertextual moment as Leon Czolgosz, the Polish anarchist best known to theatregoers as a character in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. As Anna’s only kindred spirit, the story becomes an unsettling yet touching coming together of two misfits.