(photo credit: Ron Yee)
Written by Scotty Keister
Spelunking, or the exploring of caves, seems to be an odd topic for a stage musical. Floyd Collins, based on the true story of a Kentucky man stuck underground for seventeen days in 1925, proves a little too odd to be a complete success. The musical, now running at the Newport Theater Arts Center, is a handsomely produced show featuring a remarkable set design and solid performances, but there is something missing in the play itself.
The story of the real Floyd Collins makes for some fascinating reading. His misfortune transformed him into the most famous man in America as it was the first time live radio broadcasting was used to follow a news event. It was considered one of the biggest news stories in the US between the two World Wars. Why a man trapped underground was such a colossal story seems a subject worth exploring, as these kinds of stories always seem to make national, and often international news. In the case of Floyd Collins, hundreds of cars jammed small country roads, tens of thousands of people showed up to stare at a hole in the ground while vendors set up tents all over the farmland surrounding the site, creating a carnival of curiosity. However, the musical Floyd Collins fails to really tackle any of the issues that make the story so fascinating.
There’s a reason this show has failed to really find its audience in the twenty-three years since it debuted Off-Broadway and ran for only twenty-five performances. Instead of expanding the surrounding issues, it opts for character portrayals—family, friends, rescuers—but fails to really make any of them all that interesting. Subjects like the media circus surrounding the rescue, the disputes between the numerous rescue teams, the whole history of the Kentucky Cave Wars (yes, that’s a real thing) of that era, are merely touched upon.
Then there’s the music. This is a score that will challenge even Sondheim fans, and by that I mean those who enjoy discordant and less familiar sounding music. As composed by Adam Guettel, who went on to great success with The Light in the Piazza, the score is a music theorist’s delight. For the average musical theater audience, it will be a tougher sell. Melodies seem to wander around in their own worlds, with no perceptible form. Although intended to echo the bluegrass music of the period—the orchestrations do include banjo, guitar and violins—the songs have little resemblance to traditional Americana. There is one notable number that stands out as a discernible folk tune, “The Ballad of Floyd Collins (Reprise)” in Act Two. It makes you wish the rest of the score could have been equally accessible. There is also a segment where Stephen Hulsey as Collins is singing to his own multiple echoes in something like scat yodeling, that is flat out stunning.
Hulsey doubles as both music director and Floyd Collins and as such is forced to lay onstage on his back in an awkward posture for most of the show. The play begins with Hulsey crawling around the various levels of the set, contorting his body and singing while emulating Collins’ meandering exploration of a very narrow tunnel until the inevitable falling rock traps his leg. It’s a remarkable, visceral performance. Skeets Miller, as portrayed by Mark Tillman in a likable, homespun performance, is the cub reporter who is the closest thing to a hero the play offers. He arrives to cover the story and, due to his diminutive size, is able to come the closest of anyone to digging Collins out. Homer Collins (Jonathan Haidl), Floyd’s brother who doggedly attempts several failed rescues, could have been a hero but he is forced out when the rescue is taken over by higher-ups. Haidl’s tenor voice is, however, a highlight of the show. Victoria Serra’s beautiful soprano is a stand-out as Nellie, Floyd’s sister. Allison McGuire, in the seriously underwritten role of Floyd’s step-mother, also provides some lovely singing. The rest of the case all do fine work in roles that are under-developed by book writer Tina Landau.
After the brief Off-Broadway run, Guettel and Landau spent some time trying to find writers to flesh out the script. When they could never find anything that worked they decided to write it themselves. They perhaps should have spent more time looking for a writer. Seems to me they missed the point of the story. During the performance I kept asking myself questions that the play failed to answer. Why can’t these guys agree on a strategy? Why was this such an enormous news story? Why are these guys so obsessed with cave exploring? Who ARE all these characters? There was a Billy Wilder film based on the Floyd Collins story, Ace in the Hole (1951), that came a lot closer to capturing the scope of the event, though at the time it was derided for its excessive cynicism. Maybe Guettel and Landau were trying to avoid too much darkness and go instead for more of a heroic narrative in a story that has no real heroes.
For all the dramatic failings of the script, this production, admirably directed by Kathy Paladino, has its standout moments, primarily due to the energy and pure musical skill of its cast and orchestra. As difficult as it may be to fully appreciate the songs, one can easily appreciate the hard work and aptitude of the performers. There is a palpable feeling of claustrophobia that hangs over the show that is genuinely disturbing. Thank god for the few fantasy numbers toward the end where Hulsey is able to leave his perch to sing and move around. Andrew Otero’s set design and the projections by Stephanie Garrison and Victoria Serra, along with Brian Page’s sound design, all contribute to creating a believable, and often other-worldly atmosphere. More than anything, watching the show inspired me to research the real story on my own. I have to admit, the show has stayed with me.
I would recommend this show to open-minded theater-goers who are not expecting a traditional musical and are willing to fill in the background on their own. There is certainly plenty here to capture one’s interest. Floyd Collins runs through April 21.