By MARK BLANKENSHIP
During the first act of Michael John LaChiusa's new musical Queen of the Mist, it's tempting to think we understand the lead character. Anna "Annie" Edson Taylor, based on the real-life daredevil, seems like the classic brassy dame, charging through convention in the early 20th century as she tries to become the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She's brash, charming, and fearless: The kind of gal it's easy to admire, even if we'd never follow her into the water.
But then comes the second act. Annie (Mary Testa) survives the fall, and from the moment she climbs out of the barrel, the world around her changes. The musical, which is being staged by The Transport Group at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church, shifts from being reasonably realistic to being a dreamlike rumination. Time collapses, we zoom through the rest of Annie's long life, and we soon find her sitting by the Falls as an old woman, blind and trying to sell memorabilia from her past. People come and speak to her, but are they real? There's a soldier who shares her last name. There's her sister, who ought to have died years ago. One by one, the specters sing to Annie, talk to her, and force her to face undiscovered parts of herself.
As they talk, Anna realizes that when she went over the Falls, she didn't understand herself. She lied to herself about her motivations, convinced herself she was a brassy dame, and in the same moment, we can realize that we didn't understand her, either. We can have these revelations with her.
Then the show changes again. The ghostly parade becomes a spiritual chorus, and in the final moments, Annie is rewarded for accepting her tangled life.
When he started writing the show, LaChiusa didn't know it would become so metaphorical. "Originally, I thought, 'Well, I'll just do it as a linear story, and that will make people very happy,'" he says. "But then I thought, 'No, that's not true. That's not true to what happened.' I decided that the fall did something to her. It ruptured her psyche and the timeline she was living in. So much went on for her after the fall that I realized a linear narrative no longer made sense to me."
LaChiusa's score reflects this unusual structure. Early tunes like the vaudeville-tinged group number "Do the Pan!" reference turn-of-the-century music, while the hummable duet "Type Like You" suggests a straightforward, comedic relationship between Annie and her manager Frank (Andrew Samonsky.) Still, there are hints of what's to come in introspective songs like "The Tiger," where Annie imagines her fear is a deadly jungle cat.
By the end of the second act, the introspective sounds take over, and the catchy period tunes become echoes and refractions. "As life progresses, the past shifts , too---the way we look at our past," LaChiusa says. "In musical terms, that's playing around with leitmotifs and repetition and chorus and refrain."
However, those original musical themes don't completely disappear, and neither do the characters and objects that follow Annie throughout her life. A snatch of music, a loving sister, a bit of rope: They're all part of the second act, but they're all remade.
You could argue, then, that the tools of Annie's sadness are also the instruments of her peace. LaChiusa says, "For all our follies, all our foibles, all our flaws: If we accept them all at the end of our life, no matter what people say about us, they'll turn into gold."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor