‘Queen of the Mist’ at Firebrand Theatre

Barbara E. Robertson and the cast of Firebrand Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Queen of the Mist.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

“There is greatness in me!”

When the unflappable Barbara E. Robertson – with her fiery eyes and large, expressive mouth – bellows this mere feet from a rapt audience, you have no choice but to believe her.

Robertson plays Anna (Annie) Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in Firebrand Theatre’s stunning production of The Queen of the Mist.

Now. Let’s not confuse a great production with a great show. This Queen has some issues.

The brilliant Michael John LaChiusa (book, music and lyrics) adapted the story of Ms. Taylor for an Off-Broadway run in 2011. And I am a sucker for these kinds of chamber musicals that take a historical footnote and deep-dive into the souls of people time’s mostly forgotten. See Marie Christine (also by LaChiusa), Floyd Collins and The Scottsboro Boys.

The thing is: As vital as this story is, it’s slight. And with a running time of nearly 2.5 hours, 30 or more minutes should be trimmed. The messages LaChiusa makes are repeated so many times over, it feels at best inflated, and at worst, well… indulgent. This should be a 90-minute one act. Nothing would be lost. We need more impact and less introspective arias about tigers or whatever.

That all said, Firebrand offers one hell of a production. The cast has voices that will knock you back in your chair (expert music direction by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster), giving full power to LaChiusa score, which truly has some haunting choral motifs.

And then there’s Robertson, who’s relishing this moment. I’ve seen her in many things, and it’s clear she’s having the time of her life. It’s an infectious performance.

Director Elizabeth Margolius, along with set designer Lauren Nichols and lighting designer Cat Wilson, create an evocative space, primed for storytelling. There are many striking moments (particularly in the first act), but as we approach the last 30 minutes, Margolius’s direction seems to lose steam (literally, there is a lot of inexplicable slow-motion walking happening). Again, I can’t help but blame LaChiusa’s book, which ultimately flounders like a barrel careening toward a watery ledge.

That said, this rockstar cast makes the material sing – and I’m glad I got to spend some time with this Queen.

“Queen of the Mist” plays through July 6 at The Den Theatre. More info >

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