A 63-year-old woman shooting down the Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 – the hook for ‘Queen of the Mist’ at Charing Cross Theatre – maybe isn’t your typical premise for a musical. But lyricist, book-writer and composer Michael John LaChiusa’s work has always been more interested in the drama of an idea than in conventional tales of doe-eyed lovers.
‘Queen of the Mist’ is what the real-life Anna Edson Taylor (Trudi Camilleri) had emblazoned on the barrel she had especially made for her plunge from the heights. In LaChiusa’s hands, Taylor is a fascinating, mercurial character: a school teacher and a hustler, owing money to everyone, but also hemmed in and frustrated by a small-minded society.
Where others, like her scandalised sister, crave a quiet life, Taylor battles sexism and ageism to do her ‘deed’ – a money-making scheme but also an existential leap. The barrel plunge took advantage of a leery American public’s morbid fascination with the fad for elaborately fatal attempts by others to go over the Falls. She would survive.
But that’s only half this musical’s story. The truly tragic fall happens in the second act, as Taylor learns that fame is fickle. Her sense of accomplishment means nothing to the increasingly bored readers of her book and dwindling audiences at her speaking engagements, who only thirst for sensationalism and tales of terror. She won’t satisfy them.
Camilleri is a strong presence as Taylor, imbuing a woman who was in so many ways – good and bad – before her time, with haughtiness, grit, wit and tragic defiance. Her prickly relationship with Will Arundell’s chancer Frank Russell (Taylor’s first manager, who she later accused of theft) is a welcome anchor among an otherwise speedily revolving door of character cameos.
Director Dom O’Hanlon keeps everything flowing nicely. The music is a playful mishmash of turn-of-the-century styles, providing an evocative backdrop to the show’s historical snapshot rather than a parade of show-stopping numbers. A fine-voiced ensemble cast are great value as they take turns to embody the varied people Taylor meets along the way.
‘Queen of the Mist’ is a refreshingly unusual musical, with a compellingly layered lead character in Taylor and enough spiky humour to keep everything afloat. This production loses its way a little towards the end of the show’s introspective second act. It slows down as it labours too hard for poignancy. But it snaps into focus for a tragic, touching final image.