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THEATER REVIEW Queen of the Mist
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Michael John LaChiusa ( words & music )

At: Firebrand Theatre @ The Den, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets:; $55. Runs through: July 6

When I visited Niagara Falls as a boy, I bought firecrackers legally in Canada ( reselling jumbos to schoolmates for $1 ) and learned about Annie Edson Taylor ( 1838-1921 ), first human to shoot the Falls in a barrel and live, Oct. 24, 1901. Taylor was an unlikely daredevil, a failed schoolteacher past 60 who sought fame and fortune and found neither as an unscrupulous manager stole her money and barrel. Taylor died a blind pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

In this passionate, flawed 2011 work—more contemporary opera than musical—Michael John LaChiusa portrays Taylor, warts and all. Well-educated and from a prosperous family, she lives beyond her means and clashes with those who care most for her. She's a flirtatious, witty, tippling megalomaniac who declares "My intelligence is large, my patience is small" and "I am a revolutionist and an Episcopalian….a lonely combination."

LaChiusa scored Queen of the Mist for four men and three women, but authorized Firebrand Theatre to perform it with six women and one man, honoring Firebrand's commitment to empower and employ women. Esteemed veteran performer Barbara E. Robertson plays Annie, and her oddly-beautiful face never has been more expressive, especially of pain and astonishment, and her alto voice remains powerful.

LaChiusa's serious and eclectic music benefits from Michael Starobin's gorgeous orchestrations which delicately combine reeds, cello, violin and piano under Charlotte Rivard-Hoster's musical direction. The six supporting players are colorful actors and strong singers who blend well ( additional vocal arrangements by Andra Velis Simon ), with special credit to Max J. Cervantes as Taylor's manager and unlikely friend ( a mash-up of several actual people ).

Still, Annie Taylor is hard to like. Despite her occasional charm and need to be forceful in a man's world, Taylor is her own worst enemy. LaChiusa attempts to redeem this lonely figure—and Taylor must have been terribly lonely—with a Christian epiphany at her death, but it doesn't feel earned and takes too long. The opening sequence ( "There is greatness in me" ) also is long, using 25 minutes to establish Taylor's quirky, troubled character which we understand in half the time. Tough editing requires cutting out good material if it's repetitive and dissipates dramatic tension. Composer LaChiusa always writes his own book and lyrics and, therefore, lacks a tough editor.

Scenic designer Lauren Nichols supplies a spare shadowbox setting with curved sides ( a barrel interior ), softened only by amber wood tones and Cat Wilson's lighting, and without any representational scenic devices: no Falls, barrel or early-1900s reference points ( except Brenda Winstead's expressive period costumes ). Additionally, director Elizabeth Margolius' graceful, fluid staging utilizes few props. The abstracted, ethereal net effect can be emotionally distancing, and I wonder if this is entirely intended.

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