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True tragedy

ART up to challenge of a demanding ‘Floyd Collins’

News Contributing Reviewer

Published:September 23, 2011, 12:00 AM

There’s a song at the beginning of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s offbeat and haunting Appalachian musical, “Floyd Collins,” that tells its audience the following:

“Listen to the tale of a man who got lost, a hundred feet under the winter frost.”

And so the story — based on a real-life event of 1925 — is told, a good share of it opera-flavored mixed with the odd call-and-response mountain rhythms of central Kentucky, of “caver” Floyd Collins, a dreamer and a dirt-poor explorer around and in the labyrinthian tunnels around Mammoth Cave. While searching for a new entrance to the cave, Floyd became trapped by fallen rock. Floyd’s tragedy became a huge media circus, the biggest national obsession between the two world wars, some said. Floyd was never rescued; he lasted two weeks below, in the end a victim of weather, crumbling cave walls, the obvious tight quarters, thirst, exposure and a certain amount of confusion topside.

Guettel wrote the music and lyrics and Landau the “book” for “Floyd.” The work never gained much fame — a brief Broadway run of 25 performances — but earned for Guettel, particularly, applause for his challenging and complex score, a prelude to later wide acclaim for his intriguingly beautiful “Light in the Piazza.” Guettel is the grandson of the iconic composer Richard Rodgers, so “Floyd” has some pedigree.

American Repertory Theater of Western New York and Jeffrey Coyle, in his directorial debut, have brought “Floyd Collins” to Buffalo East; the pairing has proved to be impressive.

There’s a bare-bones set — a “cave” of sorts and room for the chaos on the surface where family frets, would-be rescuers argue about what to do and the carnival atmosphere grows. Floyd had always taken chances, we learn, but he’s a survivor. That ballad in the early going told us that “He didn’t worry ’bout what he dreamed; things was going good, or so it seemed.” Well, not this time. There’s friction among Floyd’s dad, Lee, brother Homer, time-bomb sister Nellie and a host of friends and extended family. Rescue strategy is debated, a power struggle emerges, and the press — notably “Skeets” Miller, small enough to crawl to Floyd to talk and calm — is fueling the furor.

Director Coyle has a cast that is up to the demands of “Floyd Collins”: Steve Copps, excellent as Floyd, has to sing while crouched and cramped — “An’ She’d Have Blue Eyes,” among others — then at story’s end, has to be philosophical on “How Glory Goes.”

J. R. Finan and Courtney Weather bring life and meaning to Homer and Nellie. Both have their moments vocally: Finan, paired with Copps on “The Riddle Song,” Weather’s tightly wound Nellie on the powerful “Through the Mountain,” pretty and jaunty with Pamela Rose Mangus on “Lucky.”

Dudney Joseph, Adam Yellen, Steven Sitzman and Victor Morales are very fine and the Company — in some sage work by director Coyle in close range — has fun with one of the night’s best, “Is That Remarkable?”

Musical leadership credits belong to Allan Paglia and Larry Albert; yeoman service.

FLOYD COLLINS, By Anthony Chase

It is hard to believe that the celebrated 1994 Adam Guettel-Tina Landau musical, Floyd Collins, is only now having its Buffalo debut. Under the assured direction of Jeffrey Coyle and musical direction of Allan Paglia, American Repertory Theater of Western New York has taken on the piece with an intimate and appealing production, smartly designed by Matthew LaChiusa, and beautifully lit by Emma Schimminger.

Set in Kentucky in the winter of 1925, cave explorer Floyd Collins is searching the recesses of Sand Cave, hoping to find an entrance to the spectacular Mammoth system of cave formations and thereby ensure his impoverished family’s fortune and security. Using the echoes of his voice and the song of crickets to sound out the narrow twists and turns below the earth (hauntingly evoked through Guettel’s music), he accidentally drops his lamp. In the darkness, his foot becomes stuck beneath a wedge shaped rock. Floyd Collins is trapped.

Days go by. As successive attempts to rescue Collins fail, a media frenzy ignites above him. As the circus mounts, below ground Collins becomes increasingly withdrawn. When rescuers finally reach him, the man has died.

This true story was the first incident of on-sight reporting by mass media to obsess the nation. It was one of the largest news stories of the 1920s. The tale exposes the best and worst of human beings who are capable both of heroic acts of self-sacrifice and of exploiting the tragedies of others. Through his innovative score, Adam Guettel expresses the story in a sophisticated blend of American folk music and classical forms.

The uncommonly talented cast at ART features Steve Copps as Floyd Collins, JR Finan as his brother Homer, Courtney Weather as his vulnerable but spirited sister Nellie, Pamela Rose Mangus as his father’s wife, Miss Jane, Gary Darling as his repressive father, and Adam Yellen as reporter and would-be rescuer Skeets Miller.

Victor Morales plays arguably well intentioned but domineering businessman, H. T. Carmichael, who takes over the rescue operation, largely to advance himself. Dudney Joseph plays neighbor Jewel Estes; Steven E. Sitzman plays Ed Bishop; Rich Kraemer plays farmer Bee Doyle. Josh Snyder, Christopher Andreana, and Erin Brignone play a variety of local people, reporters, and visitors to the sight of the tragedy.

The show was first performed in 1994, and opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1996. It won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Obie Award for its score. Guettel, grandson of Broadway titan Richard Rodgers, was hailed as the next great American composer for the theater. He would later write the similarly impressive The Light in the Piazza. Floyd Collins has been seen around the country, and in a well-received Shaw Festival production, but until now, not in Buffalo.

In addition to the brilliant score, Tina Landau’s script explores the conflicts within and between people. Floyd is a risk-taker, but is ultimately able to accept responsibility for his fate. Journalist Skeeter Miller regrets his role in making a carnival of Floyd’s tragedy. Floyd’s father cannot understand how his religious faith and earnest intentions have lead him to unhappiness and three flawed children. When his bullying ends in failure, domineering businessman H. T. Carmichael experiences sincere regret, or something close to it.

Steve Copps is vocally strong and emotionally believable as Floyd Collins. His performance provides an anchor for the entire production.

Adam Yellen is particularly pleasing as eager Skeets Miller, an endearing character who unwittingly exacerbates a tragedy at the start of the age of mass media. Finan and Weather give steady and likable performances as Collins’ complicated siblings; and Darling and Mangus lend skill and deft acting chops to Jane and Lee Collins.

Musically, the production is especially impressive on the duets. The sometimes lilting, sometimes soulful, and sometimes soaring instrumentals are lovely.

Even as I recommend this handsome production, audiences should be advised not to expect Hello Dolly! from Floyd Collins. While the evening is full of bright moments and rich theatrical treasures, this is a dark and introspective musical with a sophisticated score.

On the night I saw the show, cave explorer Roger W. Brucker, author of Trapped: The Story of Floyd Collins, was in attendance, and declared the production to be one of the two best among the nearly 20 he has seen. He and his wife, Lynn, admired the set by Matthew LaChiusa, which they said captured the feel and claustrophobia of a cave. Brucker generously stayed to answer audience questions about the real life Collins, the writing of his book, his personal memories of Skeets Miller, and his expansive knowledge of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky.