Right Show, Wrong Crowd

A spooky musical about a man trapped in a cave is too much for the Actors Playhouse audience

In a hurry? Me too, so I'll get to the point. This is a review of Floyd Collins, an innovative musical that's got a week or two left in its run at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables. The story is based on a real incident in the 1920s, when a man got stuck in a Kentucky cave and became a national celebrity because of it. The music for this show is beautiful, strange, and difficult. Reportedly half of the audience at the opening night walked out at intermission. More on those people later. But for now, hear this: Floyd Collins is far and away the best show seen in these parts for at least as long as I have been on this job. It is the new high water mark for theater production in South Florida. If you want to witness the level of quality that can be produced here, and the level of quality that local audiences should regularly demand, see this fabulous, difficult, mesmerizing show. Got it? Go!

The facts of this show merit review. Floyd Collins premiered in New York City in 1994. Its music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel. The original director, Tina Landau, also wrote the book (the storyline and spoken dialogue) and added additional lyrics. The story takes place during 18 days in early 1925 in the hill country of Kentucky, home of the famous tourist attraction, the Mammoth Caves. A local lad, Floyd Collins, sets out to discover another cavern system, figuring he can develop it as another attraction and make his fortune. He finds his fortune, all right. He discovers a huge cavern complex, but on his return to the surface, his foot gets pinned under a fallen boulder. And there he lies, trapped, 150 feet underground. In the dark. The community soon learns of his plight, and his younger brother Homer goes down to free Floyd. But the crawl space is too small for Homer to help his brother. Soon after, a diminutive cub reporter from a Louisville newspaper, Skeets Miller, has a go. He manages to reach Floyd and interview him. The resulting article prompts a flood of reporters, hucksters, and onlookers, as the Floyd Collins story makes headlines coast to coast.

Floyd Collins is a hybrid show, one that straddles an ambiguous line between musical and opera. Its music is challenging, combining simple bluegrass licks with complex harmonies, key and rhythm changes, lyrics that ramble and wander, songs that meld one into another. There's no overture, and its opening number is a meandering musical solo as Floyd makes his serpentine descent into the deep darkness below the freezing Kentucky hills. Such a stark opening is an innovation, as untraditional as the simple opening solo of Oklahoma, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," decades ago. In fact, the Floyd Collins opener might be considered a direct, if intentionally ironic, tribute to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Floyd's composer, Adam Guettel, happens to be the grandson of Oklahoma's composer, Richard Rodgers. Guettel's music ranges from pop to folk ballad to bluegrass and hymnlike structures. His gorgeous duet, Lucky, written for two female voices, sounds like postmodern Mozart.

Tally Sessions and Charles Rooney: A new high water mark
Tally Sessions and Charles Rooney: A new high water mark

Details

Presented by the Actors Playhouse through March 30. Call 305-444-9293.
Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

Tina Landau's book follows two paths. One is Floyd's slow progress from boundless optimism to searing despair as the reality of his predicament dawns on him. The other tracks the community -- family, friends, and neighbors -- which slowly unravels under the relentless glare of media celebrity. Newspapermen make heroes out of bystanders and twist the facts to their own purposes. A songwriting neighbor pens a ballad which features the neighbor as the rescuer. An officious mining engineer uses the event to promote his own career. Even Floyd's God-fearing father turns to hucksterism, selling photos of Floyd and tours of the family farm to the hordes of gawkers that descend upon his town. All of these characters are plausible and understandable, but they aren't sentimentalized. All may feel for Floyd, but that doesn't prevent them from exploiting his misery. That exploitation really is at the heart of this completely American story. Floyd's a big spirited optimist, an entrepreneurial Huck Finn, who's sure he'll find his cavern and make a barrel of money. But when this attraction developer himself becomes the attraction, he's preyed upon by more than the crickets and worms that come to feed upon him. The show is also a spiritual meditation on human hope and self-delusion, with obvious parallels to the Christ story of crucifixion, entombment, and transcendence.

The show is given a stunning production. David Arisco uses elements from the original Landau staging -- a spare set of platforms and scaffolds to represent the hills above and the caverns below. Arisco wisely foregoes realistic theatrics, relying on physical movement, sound, lights, and the audience's imagination to create the physical settings. Arisco is equally effective staging the quiet, emotional scenes with Floyd below and the large, carnival-crowd scenes up top. It's easily his best work of the past several seasons. As Floyd's desperate imagination begins to take over his thinking, Arisco's staging gets more dreamlike, then nightmarish, to tremendous theatrical effect.

Arisco is fortunate in his cast. In the title role, Talley Sessions is magnificent, tracking Floyd's emotional zigzags, as he careens from panic to confidence to despair. The physical and musical demands of this role are formidable, but Sessions handles all with assurance and full commitment. He's especially strong in his detailed musical phrasing, and his final solo, "How Glory Goes," is indelible. Brian Charles Rooney as Floyd's restless, moviestruck brother Homer, and Blythe Gruda as their troubled, spooky sister Nellie are superb. But the entire ensemble, which is double- and triple-cast to portray an array of locals, reporters, soldiers, and the like, merit the highest praise. So does the Playhouse's production team, which delivers exceptional work here. Using two turntables, Gene Seyyfer's scaffold set is an ever-shifting arrangement of levels and shapes, a perfect visual metaphor for the shifting, crumbling environment. In this story, human community is no more stable than the ground it's built on. Mary Lynne Izzo's costumes tell stories of their own, from the grimy drab work clothes of the hill people to the flashy suits and overcoats of the city slickers. Stuart Reiter's lighting is elegant, evocative -- all ambers and steely blues in the first act, then carnival purples and pinks in the second. Nate Rausch's sound designs have long been a standout on the local theater scene, but here he has outdone himself, as the hissing of shifting sand, the horrible bass rumble of a landslide, the endless echoes of a cavern chamber combine to create a cave of the imagination.

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