‘Niagara: The Musical,’ a work-in-progress with fabulous music

At DC Arts Center, an original musical about real-life risk-takers who went over the famous falls.

History has dubbed them the Daredevils of Niagara Falls: the infamous risk-takers who thought it would be a good idea to float over the falls and drop 167 feet into crashing waves. It all started in 1901 with Annie Edison Taylor, who at age 63 took the plunge in a barrel and lived to tell the tale. Since then dozens of men — presumably not content to be outdone by a woman — have attempted the same stunt, in different containers and with varying outcomes, including gruesome fatality.

Thomas Folderauer and Jacob Oswald, two 2018 grads of Maryland’s Westminister High School, have cleverly developed Folderauer’s idea to adapt the stories of 13 of those maybe-deranged daredevils into a musical. Hey, if Stephen Sondheim could turn into a tuner 10 malcontents who tried to kill the president, why not? Besides, not unlike the felons in Assassins, the Daredevils of Niagara Falls are off-the-wall fascinating (for a quick overview of their renowned recklessness, check out the video below).

Jacob Miller as Bobby Leach and company in ‘Niagara: The Musical.’ Photo by Rick Hartwig.

With Folderauer’s music and lyrics and Oswald’s book, Niagara: The Musical debuted in an outdoor workshop production last summer (a video of which is on YouTube), and Golden Iris Theatre has brought the show to town for a world premiere run at the DC Arts Center black box in Adams Morgan.

The first thing to be said about Niagara is that the music Folderauer has composed is fabulous. I loved it. When the ensemble sings its harmonies as if a chorale, the effect is glorious. The rich prerecorded accompaniment (orchestrations by Folderauer and arrangements by Kyle Munro, who also directs) sounds amazing in the small DCAC space. I could have mistaken it for live (the expert sound design is by Folderauer). And the panoply of instruments in play — I heard piano, percussion, banjo, guitar, clarinet, and more — was created electronically by Folderauer as musical director, who could have been credited as solo entire orchestra.

While the framing device of Assassins is a carnival shooting gallery where the killer characters gather in one place outside their historical chronology, Niagara is set wittily in a dive bar. It’s called the Bridge Street Tavern, based on a real restaurant once owned by Bobby Leach, who was the second daredevil after Annie Edison Taylor (“the original badass,” played by Debbie Mobley). Leach appears as a barkeep played by Jacob Miller (whose resonant baritone is a standout among the voices of the cast). And to this watering hole, Jesse Sharp (Roman Adolfs), himself a daredevil, summons the over-the-falls affinity group so that their stories can get told in a musical number one by one in two acts.

Debbie Mobley (center) as Annie Edson Taylor, Roman Adolfs (seated) as Jesse Sharp, and company in ‘Niagara: The Musical.’ Photo by Rick Hartwig.

One of the most poignant is that of Charles Stephens (Willem Rogers), who expected that fame and fortune would follow from his plunge and rescue his 11 kids from poverty. Instead, he perished, and all that remained of him was a torn-off arm, tattoed with a message to his wife: “Forget me not.” So there’s a song in the show called “Forget Me Not,” which Stephens sings as if in mid-plunge to his wife:

All I want is for this ink to be
Another reason you think of me.
I would give my hand,
Just so you could grab it.
I would give my heart,
But you already have it. 

Robert Overacker (Jake Long), altruistically thinking the stunt would help him raise money for the homeless, rode over the falls on a Jet Ski and drowned. So there’s a song in the show called “Jet-Ski” during which members of the ensemble assemble amusingly as the vehicle Overacker rides to his death.

Kyle Secula as Jean Lussier and company in ‘Niagara: The Musical.’ Photo by Rick Hartwig.

A shadier narrative is that of Jean Lussier (Kyle Secula), who survived the falls in a huge “Rubber-O-Sphere.” Subsequently, he sold souvenir pieces of the vessel until the supply ran out, at which point he hawked fakes cut from inner tubes. So there’s a song in the show called “Made My Livin'” in which Lussier extols the art of his con:

Mmm, made my livin’,
Yes, in just one damn minute.
167 feet ain’t so bad
When there’s profits to be had.
So step right up, and come in close.
Get your look at the masterpiece.
Loosen up! Seize your moment.
Come on and buy yourself a
Piece of history. 

And so the show goes: musically imagined vignettes pegged to each of a baker’s dozen daredevils’ derring-do.

Like Assassins, which has some historical characters and some invented, the Niagara cast breakdown is mostly characters from real life with two interesting exceptions: Sunny (Aubrie Dell’Agnese) anthropomorphizes through dance the pet turtle that came along for a plunge and survived just fine even as its daredevil owner, George Stathakis (Adam Yasztremsky), suffocated to death. And Lost Spirit (Kelly Stoneberger) ethereally evokes in an aria the Indigenous myth of Lelawala, who is memorialized as the Maid of the Mist.

The production on view at DCAC is more of a showcase than a world premiere, an intriguing but still-rough work-in-progress. A provocative theme of the show is the search for what motivated each of these folks — which becomes a search for the purpose of the show itself. As Bobby Leach sings in a challenge to the convener, Jesse Sharp:

What’s this for?
You can’t hear the roar?
These tales of waterfalls
And making us relive it all,
What’s this for?
Surely you must know.
There must be a reason.

I left thinking that the answer is not evident yet.

What is evident is that the show could benefit greatly from a better-resourced production and improved execution. The scenes connecting musical numbers and the arc of each act are at times inscrutable. The vocals and acting are uneven. The stage is way too small for the overambitious choreography. There’s a lot of distraction in the direction. The show is too long by at least a third…

Yet there’s a really promising property here. It’s based on quirky but gripping real-life dramas about individuals driven by dreams and delusions. And it’s very worth a listen.

Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Niagara: The Musical plays through July 17, 2022, presented by Golden Iris Theater performing at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($30, $24 for DCAC members) can be purchased online.

COVID Safety: Mask wearing is required.

Willem Rogers as Charles Stephens in ‘Niagara: The Musical.’ Photo by Rick Hartwig.

CAST
Jesse Sharp: Roman Adolfs
Bobby Leach: Jacob Miller
William “Red” Hill, Sr.: David L. Kaiser II
Jean Lussier: Kyle Secula
Annie Edson Taylor: Debbie Mobely
Charles Stephens: Willem Rogers
George Stathakis: Adam Yasztremsky
Junior: Sean Olsson
Robert Overacker: Jake Long
Karel Soucek: Samuel Boggs
Kirk Jones: Dimonté Brice
Sunny (Turtle): Aubrie Dell’Agnese
Lost Spirit: Kelly Stoneberger
Understudies: Alec Rosinski, Ben Smith, Lilian Stoneberger

SONG LIST
Act One

Opening (Jesse Sharp, Daredevils)
Leach’s Lament (Bobby Leach, Daredevils)
Forget Me Not (Charles Stephens)
Made My Livin’ (Jean Lussier)
Stathakis Suite (George Stathakis, Daredevils)
Not My Own (“Red” Hill Sr., Junior)
Raincheck (Jesse Sharp, Bobby Leach)
Act Two
Lelawala (Lost Spirit, Daredevils)
Jet-Ski (Robert Overacker, Daredevils)
Drinking Song I (Daredevils)
Leach’s Reprise (Bobby Leach, Daredevils)
Drinking Song II (Daredevils)
The First Trip (Annie Edson Taylor, Daredevils)
Drinking Song III (Daredevils)
To Houston (Karel Soucek, Daredevils)
Drinking Song IV (Daredevils)
Encore (Daredevils)

CREATIVE TEAM
Director: Kyle Munro
Composer: Thomas Folderauer
Book Writer: Jacob Oswald
Lyricist: Thomas Folderauer
Orchestrations: Thomas Folderauer
Sheet Music Arrangements: Kyle Munro
Sound Tracks and Sound Designer: Thomas Folderauer
Musical Director: Thomas Folderauer
Choreographer: Aubrie Dell’Agnese
Set Designer: Jim Stoneberger
Costume Designer: Aubrie Dell’Agnese
Lighting Designer: Jeffrey Wack
Stage Manager: Payton Stoneberger
Props Designer/Master: Kyle Munro
Social Media Director: Faith Folderauer
Produced by Golden Iris Theatre, LLC
Executive Producer: Michele Geckle
Assistant Producer: Thomas Folderauer

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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