“a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale”
Queen of the Mist is an ironic meditation on a whole range of recognisable American characters, including unscrupulous managers, small minded small town citizens, a radical Temperance campaigner — and even the assassin of an American president. In Michael John LaChiusa’s musical, they all get caught up in the story of one highly unusual sixty-three year old woman striving for immortality — and enough money to live out the end of her days. For protagonist Anna Edson Taylor, the problem is how to achieve this when life has you so beaten, the only route left to you is to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Based on a true story, we first meet Anna drifting from small upstate New York towns to small midwestern cities. All she meets is a hard nosed scepticism and a grasping at dollars — a wasteland for a woman who proclaims throughout Queen of the Mist that “There is a Greatness in Me.” Her longing for significance is dismissed by those who see Anna’s quest for consequence as that of an unscrupulous huckster and “Queen of fools.” There is more than a little truth to this, but in the words and music of LaChiusa, Anna’s search transcends the hardscrabble existence of a self proclaimed “quintessential hero”. We see instead, an intelligent woman who takes on the forces of nature “with science”, and wins. With such a barnstorming ending to the first half as Anna goes over the Niagara Falls, where can Queen of the Mist possibly go in the second?
Anna’s story falters in the second half, and this is hardly surprising. Anna’s life falters as well. As the first person to survive a trip over the Falls, we see her life turn into a series of lecture tours that all fail because of Anna’s inability to describe “what it was like”. There is conscious irony at work here, in giving Anna the posthumous fame she so desperately sought in life. Michael John LaChuisa once again creates a challenging work laden with memorable music and big ideas.
This revival of Queen of the Mist at the Charing Cross Theatre is noteworthy in several respects. With the audience seated both in front and behind the stage, set designer Tara Usher has produced a flexible space that teases with several delightful surprises as Anna’s story proceeds, amply supported by lighting designer Beth Gupwell. But it is director Dom O’Hanlon who deserves special mention for making the most of this challenging space. It is rare that one sees such confident, ingenious work. His direction highlights the talents of the cast, particularly Trudi Camilleri, playing Anna, and Will Arundell, who plays Anna’s first manager, Frank Russell. The musical direction of Connor Fogel is also confident, and with his band, supports the singing talents of all the cast to good effect.
Queen of the Mist is not a light hearted musical, but it is a musical with a profound heart, and more than a touch of a morality tale. For how different, really, is our contemporary world, with its own parade of hucksters and money grabbers? Anna Taylor Edson’s story is a perfect example of restless people in search of distinction, deserved or not. But Queen of the Mist is ultimately a musical about hope and resurrection, and inspirational in its own unique way.
“it was a touch surreal at one point to see a burly bunch of dockworkers with jazz hands”
Not seen in London for over fifty years, Lionel Bart’s “Maggie May” runs the danger of feeling dated or hackneyed. A modern-day audience can be forgiven for reasoning why it hasn’t been staged for so long. Admittedly it is not one of Bart’s finest, and Liverpudlian Alun Owen’s book has lumpish limitations; but Matthew Iliffe’s revival papers over the cracks and compels us to shed our doubts.
Walking into the Finborough is like wandering onto the set of a 1960s Ken Loach film. We are very much taken back in time as Verity Johnson’s suitably monochrome set recreates the gritty realism of a bygone age. You can almost taste the salt air of the Mersey and feel the fabric of the working-class nobility worn bare. Against the backdrop of dockside gantries and Scouse defiance is the tale of the doomed love affair between the eponymous prostitute, Maggie May, and Pat Casey, the son of a union martyr. Yet much of the plot concentrates on Casey’s fight against his corrupt bosses to prevent a shipment of arms to South Africa.
An odd choice for a musical, and indeed often the music is at odds with its subject matter. It boasts ‘one of the most musically diverse scores’; which is true, in a sense, of this motley crew of numbers if you substitute lack of focus for diversity. There are obvious Celtic roots, but we are taken on a whirlwind tour that takes in Mersey Beat, music hall, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, ballads, a bit of blues and even some ‘hot jazz’. I must say it was a touch surreal at one point to see a burly bunch of dockworkers with jazz hands. Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography is equally eclectic but works impressively well within the confines of the theatre’s space and there are some firecracker routines hemmed in just sizzling to explode onto a larger stage.
The thirteen strong cast almost move as one with a collective personality that braces any weaknesses in the libretto. And despite some patronising patois, the dockers and the whores avoid caricature. Kara Lily Hayworth commands the stage with her presence as the tough, no-nonsense but brittle Maggie May. A popular dockland prostitute, she calls all her clients ‘Casey’ after her childhood sweetheart. Pat Casey returns from a life at sea and their attempts to rebuild their lives together is a rocky road, particularly when Casey gets reluctantly drawn into the dockworkers conflict. James Darch wonderfully exposes the inner conflicts of the man; torn between love and principle, and unable to shake off the shadow of his past. While Lily Hayworth’s strong soprano has the lion’s share of the show’s stirring ballads, Darch contrasts with a memorable rendition of “I’m Me”: one of the musical highlights.
The ensemble numbers tread a more uneven path, veering from the shambolic, tuneless bar-room singalong of “Right of Way” to the richly textured, Kurt Weill inspired “Casey”. Despite Henry Brennan’s dynamic piano accompaniment, I did find myself craving a double base, or a touch of actor-musicianship. But that is just a subjective cavil, and could dilute the acting, which is consistently fine throughout; from Mark Pearce’s self-assured swagger of corrupt union boss, Willie Morgan through to the show-stealing charisma of Michael Nelson’s Judas figure, Judder Johnson.
But like the characters who are shouldering life the best way they can, it sometimes feels like the actors, too, are trying to make the best of what they are given. Yes, there are often reasons why a show isn’t staged for over half a century. However, if this is a charge that can be levelled at “Maggie May”, then this company makes a watertight counterclaim and gives us every reason to catch this revival at the Finborough.