There are a trio of beautiful moments in Floyd Collins threading through 1st Stage Tysons’ newest musical offering. In the first of these moments, Harrison Smith (who plays a small cameo role in the rest of the musical) stands downstage center, suddenly downstrokes on his six string, and sings “Deep in the land of the hollows and creeks/If’n you get lost you get lost for weeks/Listen to the tale of a man who got lost/a hundred feet under the winter frost.”
It’s the start of a ballad built to tell the story of Floyd Collins the man, a ballad that develops in 3 moments over the course of the play into an authentic song that struck to the heart of my childhood. The simple but not simplistic strength of the Ballad of Floyd Collins and the powerful but not overpowering quality of Smith’s performance reminded me of sitting by a fire in the wilderness trying to harmonize with the crickets or my father playing scratchy old versions of country masters on a lonesome night time drive. It’s a fine example of how Americana should be represented on contemporary stages, but rarely is, giving a clear sense of country in our inevitably urban theatrical landscape.
But these moments are somewhat bittersweet for Floyd Collins because they are exceptions to the style of the play, rather than the rule.
Floyd Collins purports to tell the story of the titular exploring spelunker in 1920’s Kentucky, looking to find the next big tourist attraction to save his family farm. He becomes that tourist attraction by getting trapped in the cave he was exploring, and the play follows the attempted rescues and the media circus that followed those attempts.
Sounds great, right? But a play with a great elevator pitch can get bogged down in execution. While execution is normally a production-side problem, for Floyd Collins the execution issues come from the creative side, i.e. the writing. For most of the play, writers Adam Guettel and Tina Landau forgo a strong and authentic sense of location (both chronological and geographic). It lacks strength because of its patently late 20th century style. Guettel ignores consistent rhythm and catchy melody by playing Mr. Clever Dick with the score, leaving the performers an impossible task of selling an audience on almost experimentally atonal and amelodic music. From the music, the location of the play is less 1920’s Kentucky cave country and more 1990’s Manhattan apartment of a musician who wishes he was Stephen Sondheim.
The atypically (for Landau, not the American Musical Theater unfortunately) male-heavy book lacks authenticity because it relies on hillbilly pastiche that barely counts as characterization and loses its threads constantly. A character is literally smacked in the face with a Bible. Floyd’s sister returns from the asylum, but we never find out why she went. Floyd’s brother rants about the “outlander” man from the company coming to save his brother, “as if he were born here.” The list goes on. All of it together reads like Landau has zero experience with her subject matter and uses the term “flyover country” unironically.
One smashingly positive outcome of all of these creative-side problems is that this cast and production team really rise to the Herculean challenge presented to them. The entire first part of the play puts Floyd Collins alone onstage, and prolific local Evan Casey confidently carries the whole thing, constantly and usually successfully probing for ways to appeal to the audience, so they care about his later entrapment.
closes June 26, 2016
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And although it turns out that when your protagonist spends 3/4s of the play trapped in a underground cave, he’s not very active or compelling as the center of a story, the rest of the cast picks up on Casey’s igniting energy to keep Floyd Collins flowing throughout its run. Edward Nagel, as reporter “Skeets” Miller, particularly stands out, since his growth as a character from fresh-faced excitement to determined involvement to rueful cynicism creates a followable arc for the audience and Nagel’s sharp acting tells that story clearly. Once Floyd gets trapped, this musical belongs to Nagel, even though he doesn’t sing much.
Sometimes the cast’s work is a mixed bag, but they come together as an ensemble where it counts. Frank Britton nails his short monologue (typical for him) and acquits himself well in his musical debut. Maggie Donnelly delivers an atypically overwrought performance as Floyd’s sister Nellie. Benjamin Lurye, Hasani Allen and Russell Silber put fantastic and funny musical and lyrical layers on as reporters in “Is That Remarkable?” John Sygar has a Michael-Cera-that-has-a-nice-falsetto thing going on that works decently in this musical but may be even more powerful in others. Joseph Musumeci Jr.’s set stands out among the design elements as adaptable and naturally beautiful while Robert Croghan’s costume design is intricate and expansive but sometimes difficult to track. But when the company joins together and operate as a group, they come together well.
Despite these generally laudable efforts with this source material, I find it difficult to recommend this play. 1st Stage Tysons can obviously put together a sizable group of immensely talented individuals and get them to work as a fine team for a production, but yoking them with the task of making a mediocre musical great is an unfair ask. What’s more, most ticket buyers don’t particularly care for the distinction between play and production, so a good production of a bad musical can still drive audiences away. I would keep an eye out for 1st Stage productions that find great source material that really interest you as an audience member and patronize those productions.
Floyd Collins. Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel. Book and Additional Lyrics by Tina Landau. Directed by Nick Olcott. Featuring Hasani Allen, Frank Britton, Evan Casey, Maggie Donnelly, Benjamin Lurye, Edward C. Nagel, Jennifer Lyons Pagnard, Scott Sedar, Russell Silber, Joshua Simon, Harrison Smith, John Sygar and Carl Williams. Music Direction: William Yanesh . Choreography: Michael J. Bobbitt and Rachel Leigh Dolan . Set Design: Joseph B. Musumeci, Jr. Costume Design: Robert Croghan . Lighting Design: Brian S. Allard . Sound Design: Kenny Neaal . Props Design: Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa . Stage Manager: Baron E. Pugh . Produced by 1st Stage Tysons. Reviewed by Alan Katz.