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Variety.com Review - Floyd Collins


Review by Jeremy Garard

Variety.com
March 4, 1996


Floyd Collins is easy to admire but hard to love, a display of sometimes ravishing technical skills but not of engaged passion. While Tina Landau's staging of the musical she co-wrote with composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is full of striking images, the show itself ultimately comes off as slightly ersatz, like the Appalachian accents laid thick by the actors at Playwrights Horizons.

Then again, being the focus of foreign ambitions would be nothing new to the title character. The sorry story of Floyd Collins is a quintessential bit of American-style myth-making. In 1925, the heedless Kentucky spelunker got himself trapped 150 feet underground while searching for a cave big enough to turn into a tourist attraction. For 16 days, he was the attraction, as print and radio reporters from across the country descended on Bee Doyle's farm to convey every second of Floyd's plight to a nation conned into holding its collective breath.

The story was further heightened by the fact that a slightly built reporter from Louisville was the only person small enough to reach Collins, and the other reporters could do little more than make lame attempts to put their own spin on follow-up stories and write about one another (sound familiar?). The competition continually raised the stakes for more and more sensationalized coverage.

In 1951, Billy Wilder turned the Collins story into an even more cynical take on the writer's craft thanhe had done in "Sunset Boulevard" the year before: In "Ace in the Hole" (later known as "The Big Carnival"), Kirk Douglas played a reporter who ruthlessly exploits a situation similar to Floyd's in order to revive his career.

Landau and Guettel don't gloss the media-circus element; indeed, it's a pervasive theme in Floyd Collins, an earlier version of which was presented in 1994 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. In "The Carnival," an act-two vaudeville routine, Brian d'Arcy James, Matthew Bennett and James Bohanek play reporters from distant newspapers calling in their pathetic stories:"Here's the dope/chock full of tragedy and hope," along with shameless stereotypes of the region's people and culture. But for all the levels of exploitation in evidence, Floyd Collins isn't satire of the Billy Wilder stripe. Indeed, it's a little hard to figure out just what it is.

The musical opens with "The Ballad of Floyd Collins," a title that seems to intentionally recall the opening of Sweeney Todd, and the challenging score is very Sondheim-like in ways that "Rent," by Guettel's late friend, composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson, is not.

Floyd (played by Christopher Innvar, an actor who movingly conveys a great, wide-open, dumb innocence) just wants to get rich without killing himself working his father's farm. Dreams in this territory are limited -- Floyd and his kid brother, Homer (Jason Danieley), imagine "a ticket office, a curio shop and a refreshment stand/Open seven days a week." The dream comes to an end when Floyd is trapped and events are suddenly taken over not only by the rapacious media, but by a ladder-climbing mining company executive (Michael Mulheren) who insinuates himself into the rescue operation and finally takes it over (he's the Alexander Haig of Barren County).

Yet as Landau and Guettel get more immersed in the doomed business of saving Floyd Collins, Floyd Collins himself recedes. The show becomes more a commentary on his story than its evocation, a choice that is death to a musical. Floyd is a cipher, and maybe that's all he can be.

The point is driven home in the final moments, the most touching in the show. The last words belong to the dead Floyd:"I can see so far," he sings, alone in a golden pool of light, as the echoes from his lovely yodeling slowly fade along with the color from Scott Zielinski's exquisite lighting palette, until they stop altogether. But then both Guettel and Landau undermine the moment by having other characters repeat the point, as if we won't get it.

It's a conventional ending to what is, at heart a conventional musical with unconventional aspects. Guettel is tough on singers; even the ballads, like those he gives Floyd's adoring sister, Nellie (Theresa McCarthy), have enough strange melodic twists to make good singers sound tentative. Despite the guitar, banjo, harmonica and violin strains woven through the score, beautifully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, the score demands more than one hearing to warm to.

Landau and the design team make remarkable use of the tiny Playwrights stage, ingeniously giving breathing space to a definitively claustrophobic show. But "Floyd Collins" itself remains the earthbound effort of a clearly gifted team. I can't wait to hear what Guettel comes up with next.

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Cast: Christopher Innvar (Floyd Collins), Stephen Lee Anderson (Bee Doyle), Rudy Roberson (Ed Bishop), Jesse Lenat (Jewel Estes), Don Chastain (Lee Collins) , Cass Morgan (Miss Jane), Theresa McCarthy (Nellie Collins), Jason Danieley (Homer Collins), Martin Moran (Skeets Miller), Michael Mulheren (H.T. Carmichael), Brian d'Arcy James (Cliff Roney/Reporter), Matthew Bennett (Dr. Hazlett/Reporter), James Bohanek (Reporter/Con Man).
 
Set, James Schuette; costumes, Melinda Root; lighting, Scott Zielinski; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Erica Schwartz; casting, Janet Foster; production manager, Christopher Boll. Artistic director, Tim Sanford; managing director, Leslie Marcus; general manager, Lynn Landis. Opened March 3, 1996. Reviewed Feb. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
Musical numbers: "The Ballad of Floyd Collins," "The Call," "'Tween a Rock an' a Hard Place," "Lucky,""Daybreak," "I Landed on Him," "Blue Eyes," "Heart an' Hand, " "The Riddle Song," "Isn't That Remarkable?" "The Carnival," "Through the Mountain, " "Git Comfortable," "The Dream," "How Glory Goes."



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