Variety.com Review - Floyd Collins
Review by Jeremy Garard
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
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
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
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.
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."