Review: Queen of the Mist (Charing Cross Theatre)
Michael John LaChiusa's musical comes to central London
Some of the most compelling modern musicals have been based on unlikely true stories: look at Evita charting the rise and fall of an Argentine dictators wife, or Parade which musicalised a murderous miscarriage of justice in the American Deep South of the early twentieth century. We've also seen the Western corruption of Japan (Pacific Overtures), the life and hard times of a pair of conjoined twins who became unwilling showbiz stars (Side Show) and, in Floyd Collins, a Kentucky cave explorer who got permanently stuck down a rock shaft. There have been many more but Michael John LaChiusa's Queen Of The Mist, inspired by the story of 63 year-old Anna Edson Taylor who survived riding over Niagara Falls in a self-designed barrel in 1901, must rank as one of the most eccentric.
LaChiusa provided book, music and lyrics for this esoteric offering, first seen off-Broadway in 2011, and while it would be wonderful to report that it's an unexpected triumph, it is unfortunately quite a challenge to sit through. Some of LaChiusa's music, which evokes the early 20th century but still feels bracingly contemporary, is beautiful, and done full justice by Michael Starobin's superb orchestrations and Connor Fogel's eight-piece band. It's rousingly sung by a company of magnificent voices.
Judged by the music alone, this is pretty damn good. But then there's the rest of it...
One can't help wondering if the piece might have benefited from a separate scriptwriter who could have sorted out the somewhat muddled storytelling; the second half, which covers Edson Taylor's financially challenged itinerant existence after her death-defying stunt – she was betrayed by her manager and tried unsuccessfully to carve a career as a public speaker – is pretty hard to follow.
An extra pair of creative hands might have also beefed up the sketchy characterisations. This is particularly crucial, and damaging to the show as a whole, in the case of the heroine herself who seldom leaves the stage over more than two hours playing time yet still feels strangely unknowable. We learn that Anne was driven by financial desperation and a fear of ending up in the poor house but, in Trudi Camilleri's full-throated but rather one-note portrayal, she just comes across as entirely humourless, exhaustingly stroppy and tediously self-aggrandising. The overall effect is of watching somebody in a permanently bad mood, falling out with everybody all the while aggressively belting out high notes, oblivious to the law of diminishing returns. She gets an interminable death scene – she even asks aloud why it's taking so long, a sentiment I was echoing from the front stalls by this point – and when her end is nigh it's a bit of a relief, despite Ms Camilleri's hard-working performance.
It's brave to build a musical around a singularly unsympathetic leading character (hello again, Evita) but it can work if they have an innate charisma, or their story is particularly fascinating. Sadly that isn't the case here, although the show sparks fitfully into life when Anne comes into contact with Leon Czolgosz (Conor McFarlane) the man who goes on to assassinate US President McKinley, or disdainful feminist pioneer Carrie Nation (Emma Ralston). The rest of the time the tone tends to be a bit whiney and turgid, even with the commitment of a strong cast. Will Arundell is impressive as Anne's drunk, weak-willed manager, Emily Juler does lovely, sensitive work as her maligned sister, and Camilleri really does have an extraordinary voice.
Dom O'Hanlon's sepia-toned, attractive production struggles to fully utilise the traverse stage, unlike designer Tara Usher whose ingenious dark-wood set evokes the interior of a giant barrel or the hull of a ship. Musically exciting but dramatically inert, this is a frustrating experience, probably of more interest to musical completists than the average theatregoer.