Mary Testa and company
in Queen of the Mist
(© Carol Rosegg)
Mary Testa and company
in Queen of the Mist
(© Carol Rosegg)
There are many talented performers today for whom musicals should be specifically written. Mary Testa is one of them, and composer-lyricist-librettist Michael John LaChiusa knows it. As a result, he's crafted the insistently involving, though still imperfect, Queen of the Mist, being presented by Transport Group at The Gym at Judson.

But whereas older vehicles were often little more than acceptable excuses to showcase marquee names, LaChiusa is after more significant commentary. Here, he's intent on analyzing the conflicting impulses that define the ambivalent American personality by telling the story of the real-life, highly conflicted Anna Edson Taylor, the all-but-forgotten 63-year-old woman who was the first to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.

As LaChiusa writes her and as Testa plays her, she doesn't just get into the barrel that she's designed -- named Queen of the Mist -- for her miraculously successful ride, but within her churns a barrelful of mixed motivations.

While Taylor takes a scientific approach to her feat, she also pushes sanity to its limits. Alternatively, she's out to upend views of women but then declares she's only in it for money and fame. She is also fired by a need to show herself she's more than an aging female living an unsatisfying peripatetic life as a voice teacher with no students in a series of towns from which she's ejected.

LaChiusa divides his tale into a first act depicting Taylor's determined build-up to the 1901 Horseshoe Falls drop and a second act following the dispiriting, downward-spiraling aftermath. While the first half is dramatically tight, during the second act -- perhaps because LaChiusa hasn't really figured out what conclusion he wants to reach about multi-faceted Taylor as an emblematic American -- he allows the action to become diffuse. It's a longer-than-necessary series of humiliations Taylor endures.

Musically, much of his work here is on a consistently high level, most notably a counterpoint melody -- "Types Like You" and "Take A Little Walk" -- delivered with cheer by Testa and Andrew Samonsky, who fares extremely well as Taylor's nefarious manager, Frank Russell.

All the supporting players -- including Theresa McCarthy, DC Anderson, Tally Sessions, Stanley Bahorek, and the estimable Julia Murney -- cavort energetically under Jack Cummings III's inventive direction and with the aid of innumerable props on a wide corridor between two bleachers.

But the main attraction remains Testa, wearing a funereal floor-length dress (designed by Kathryn Rohe) and behaving throughout as a woman who, no matter what, believes a straight-backed posture and clearly articulated diction is the mark of success. As always, she sings with clarion resolution and, given a challenging theatrical arc to travel, finds every nuance along it. "There is Greatness in Me," Testa repeatedly sings throughout Queen of the Mist. She's got that right.