One hundred and one years ago, plump and poor Civil War widow Annie Edson Taylor celebrated her 63rd birthday by surviving the 167-foot plummet from Niagara Falls in a padded oak barrel — a daredevil feat that no one younger, fitter, or male had accomplished. How could she not deserve her own musical? Composer Michael John LaChiusa’s beautifully odd Queen of the Mist celebrates Taylor in grand, if economical style at the Judson Memorial Church Gymnasium on Washington Square. There’s no re-enactment of the stunt, with Annie (the trumpet-voiced Mary Testa, for whom the work was written) cascading over a wooden reproduction of Niagara. The audience sits facing each other on parallel sets of bleachers, while the action — which follows Annie from shortly before her decision to shoot the falls to her pauper’s death in a nursing home — occurs mainly to the right and left of the stands. (If you have neck problems, be aware that enjoying this show requires a lot of craning.) There are only six supporting actors and three large props, a piano, a bathtub, and a bed. Everything in Mist is about Testa — her sparkling eyes, her hoary wig, her generous curves, and of course, her singing.
She has a lot to work with here, as LaChiusa samples from the best — and most disparate — popular music of the era he’s re-creating. (Mist is the inaugural outing of the Transport Group’s 20th Century Project, a series of 10 productions each focusing on a different decade in the 1900s.) There is a Sousa-inspired march (”Laugh at the Tiger”), Joplin ragtime (”Million Dolla’ Momma”), and good old-fashioned turn-of-the-20th-century Broadway (”Do the Pan!”). ”Million Dolla’ Momma” is a standout — belted from the heart by Annie’s spurned and drunken manager Mr. Russell (Andrew Samonksy) — along with Testa’s self-empowerment anthem ”There is Greatness in Me.”
Annie’s a difficult woman to love, fibbing her way across the U.S., pigheadedly insisting on performing the Niagara stunt, suspiciously banishing her only friends and family after the public turns on her, then dying despised and bitter. But Testa, who is primarily known as a comedian, makes her at least funny and vulnerable. (She’s also prettier than her real-life counterpart — the nicest description newspapers gave Annie at the time was ”stout.”) Annie lounges in the bath fully clothed in her widow’s weeds, slugging from a flask. She spits out insults (”Look what the mouse dragged in”) even when that brave glint in her eye verges on desperation.
Annie’s favorite refrain, ”I am an Episcopalian and therefore I’m used to a standard of living that is most hard to change,” lets us know from the start why she’s risking her life as a daredevil: Money. Later, she adds a second motive: Fame. Is she crazy? Yes. Is she different from the current ”celebs” grasping at popularity by eating bugs on tropical islands or getting married on E!? No. Does she attract the same scrutiny? Definitely. But LaChiusa seems to suggest that we shouldn?t get too down on any of these strivers. Annie and her contemporary cohorts have something that the rest of us lack: the guts to put themselves out there. Only today taking the plunge into the waters of public attention isn?t quite so literal. B+
(Tickets: TransportGroup.org or 866-811-4111)