Firebrand's 'Queen of the Mist' tells the painful true story of the woman who survived Niagara Falls

Barbara E. Robertson has graced pretty much every major theater in Chicago: Goodman, Steppenwolf, you name ‘em. She played for a while in “Wicked,” too. But her performance in Firebrand Theatre’s “Queen of the Mist,” a relentless Michael John LaChiusa musical about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and keep on breathing, is no sideshow. It’s a marquee event of the summer.

Robertson plays Annie Edson Taylor, an American schoolteacher from Bay City, Mich., who, on her 63rd birthday in 1901, stuffed herself inside a white oak cask alongside a lucky pillow, had someone screw down the lid and then set her adrift toward the most powerful waterfall in North America. Even though the barrel bounced off the rocks, Taylor was found virtually unharmed.


Her motivation? Publicity, which she hoped might secure her a decent retirement. Shortly thereafter, she could be found selling a little 10 cent pamphlet to tourists recounting her feat.

Alas, long-term financial security was not forthcoming. LaChiusa’s musical — which premiered in New York in 2011 starring Mary Testa — explains all the complex comings and goings of dubious managers like Frank Russell (Max J. Cervantes), who took off with Taylor’s barrel and headed for, well, where else but Chicago?


In director Elizabeth Margolius’ production — which is extraordinarily well sung by the supporting cast of Neala Barron, Liz Chidester, Hannah Starr, Liz Bollar and Maryam Abdi — Robertson treats her assignment as a portrait of an ordinary woman driven to extremes by her own fiscal circumstances, an American original with the nation’s signature thirst for publicity, but also an emblem of the lengths to which economic desperation can drive an otherwise ordinary woman. Firebrand’s mission is to produce feminist musicals and that is consistent to a large extent in terms of how LaChiusa approached his biographical material, although as acts of rebellion go, hurling yourself over a waterfall is not generally to be recommended as an investment in yourself.

“Queen of the Mist” is what you might call a very centered, mono-themed musical: it’s about a woman who had a miserable life and its tone is consistently intense. If you’re expecting, say, “Ragtime,” a work set in a similar period but with multiple plots and far more characters and mood shifts, you may well find “Queen of the Mist” to be a lengthy thematic pounding that does not flow forward, narratively speaking, with sufficient combustion or interest. And, of course, the show sets itself the near-impossible task of being centered on an event that is impossible to show the audience. Despite the populist theme, this is not what you’d call a fun night out.

But this is a score that rewards a careful listen and much of the writing feels painfully wise. And Robertson’s work here is more than enough to overcome the show’s singularity of theme, especially when coupled with a cast-wide level of rare musical richness, notwithstanding the complexity of LaChiusa’s music.

It’s hard to overpraise what Robertson is doing, although part of the pleasure is the rare chance to see her work in such an intimate setting. At this point in her career, Robertson fully is the equal of those more famous Broadway divas. This we know. What becomes clear with “Queen of the Mist,” though, is her willingness both to advocate for her all-consuming character, and, where necessary, send her off down the river into her own self-delusion. Honestly, it’s a sight to see.

There is nothing sentimental about what you are watching here: in fact, Robertson reveals the kind of human frailty that all self-aware persons recognize in themselves.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


Review: “Queen of the Mist” (3 stars)

When: Through July 6

Where: The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $55 at

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