Friday, September 14, 2012

The Rise of the Falls - Queen of the Mist - Cast Recording Review

I missed Transport Group's Off-Broadway production of the new Michael John LaChiusa musical Queen of the Mist, but luckily, Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records have preserved the show in an Original Cast Recording for us to experience.

LaChiusa's newest little chamber musical is about Anne "Annie" Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She lived to tell the tale, but she thought fame and fortune would follow but was sorely mistaken. It's a fascinating story and Queen of the Mist is a beautifully told story with an intriguing book that feels epic, yet concentrates on the very personal and intimate story of this woman who would be crazy enough to pull a stunt of death defying proportions. 

LaChiusa's music tends to be extremely complex (aka not easy to digest and listen to sometimes) and while I have tended to admire rather than love some of his earlier work, his recent Giant (finally opening in New York this fall) was a tremendous and epic work that soared melodically and pulled emotional levels worthy of the classic story, and without ever losing the essence and complexity LaChiusa is known for.

With Queen of the Mist, LaChiusa hasn't lost any of the complexity in the notes of the music, but taking on the musical stylings of the early 20th century, has added some breathing room and lightness to his music, with some beautifully tuneful songs, harking back to the . Threading some of the melodies, particularly "There Is Greatness In Me", adds layers of discovery on the strange personality of this Annie Edson Taylor. There's a wink and natural comedic tone in the music and in the lyrics that pokes at Taylor's delusions without ever quite making fun of her. There's a genuine love for Taylor as a person, despite the fact that she was probably a very irritating and frustrating person to deal with.

Annie Edson Taylor was the know it all who knew nothing. An intelligent woman who wasn't smart enough to get her life together in a world and time that didn't know how to handle a brassy woman like that. As Annie, Mary Testa gives a powerful and empathetic performance that isn't lost in an audio recording. You can hear her feisty performance, and with the honesty in LaChiusa's tone, both the ridiculous elements of Taylor's life, along with Testa's no-holds-barred performance, presents both the brave and deluded woman Taylor was.

Mary Testa is absolutely amazing, even in audio only, and even her facial expressions come across through the non-visual medium. After rocking the boat in the recent Broadway revival of Guys & Dolls , or being an ungodly riot in Xanadu, it's great to see Testa take hold of a leading performance and giving it the full emotional force we knew she had in her, without losing her comedic touch, or a relatability that makes Testa so beloved.

Up against Testa's Taylor is Andrew Samonsky as Mr. Russell, the man she sort of forces to become her manager, only, as Mr. Russell predicts, turns into a tumultuous business relationship. Samonsky (quite wonderful in a small role in Little Miss Sunshine (musical) and replacement in South Pacific) finally gets a nice leading original role and his beautiful voice and tone is a perfect opposition to Testa's Taylor.

As the story of Annie's life unravels as she begins to unravel, the period music repeats itself, but with undertones of her ghostly mistakes as they layer themselves in LaChiusa's music. It becomes both a haunting tale, while also being a fascinating tabloid story. The recording has gorgeous orchestrations with some of LaChiusa's most tuneful music. I may have been sorry that I missed the production but it wonderfully lives on in this superb recording.

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