Floyd Collins

Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

There's a marvelous new show playing downtown--a serious yet entertaining musical drama inspired by a true-life disaster early this century, a tale of human aspiration and hubris thwarted by the implacable power of nature. Visually striking, the production makes full use of a sprawling stage yet remains emotionally intimate; its brilliant score borrows from historically appropriate sources yet never descends into mere pastiche; and its brisk, economical, but richly textured script is populated by accessible but offbeat characters, almost all based on real people.

No, it's not Titanic: A New Musical, the heavily hyped, big-ticket Broadway behemoth at the Civic Opera House--it's Floyd Collins at the Goodman Theatre. And just as the Goodman and the Civic are at opposite ends of the Loop, so Floyd Collins and Titanic are polar opposites in terms of quality, originality, and dramatic impact. Where Titanic's script, by Broadway veteran Peter Stone, relies on caricature and cliche, the book by relative newcomer Tina Landau for Floyd Collins--which she also directs--consistently steers clear of formulas despite the story's potential for soap-opera sentimentality. Where Maury Yeston's shallow Titanic score spoons out predigested emotion in dumbed-down lyrics and tedious tunes that alternately recall Elgar at his most pompous and Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most puerile, Floyd Collins melds Appalachian folk idioms with modernist compositional techniques, reflecting the influence of but never slavishly following Copland and Barber. The show's gifted composer--Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, whose groundbreaking semioperatic Carousel is a precursor to this ambitious, artful work--creates spiky yet lyrical, unpredictable yet logical melodies, given exquisite instrumental textures by strings and harmonicas. The lyrics, by Guettel and Landau, work seamlessly with the script to drive the story forward, employing the blend of dreamy optimism and melancholy fatalism characteristic of mountain ballads.

Where Titanic's "visual spectacle" consists of masses of singers staring wide-eyed at big, bland backdrops depicting various shipboard locations, Floyd Collins suggests its setting--the bleak terrain and ominous caverns of central Kentucky's Mammoth Cave area--through heavily shadowed lighting, a few well-chosen sound cues (an echoing voice and whooshing wind), and the performance of Romain Frugé as the title character. In the show's gripping opening sequence, Floyd--a hardscrabble farmer and avid spelunker who dreams of discovering a "cave o' wonder" he can turn into a sight-seeing attraction--crawls deep into the earth, using the reverberations of his own voice to guide him through a network of narrow passages; the fateful journey is represented by Frugé wriggling and writhing around the raked stage in a pantomimed exploration of imagined subterranean pathways. When Floyd is trapped by a rockfall that pins his leg, the horrifying accident is depicted by a few ingenious aural and visual effects and Frugé's own gut-deep reaction.

Based on a 1925 incident that also spawned several popular songs, vaudeville dramatizations, and The Big Carnival, an extraordinary 1951 Billy Wilder film, Floyd Collins premiered in 1994 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, was subsequently produced off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons, and is now presented by the Goodman as a coproduction with San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater, where it played before coming here. Wilder's film and this musical both address the carnival atmosphere that sprang up around the site where Floyd was buried alive: it became a magnet for the media as well as hordes of gawkers and peddlers, who set up a tent city to await Floyd's fate. The heavily fictionalized film (originally and aptly called Ace in the Hole) focused not only on the media frenzy but on the relationship between the trapped victim's faithless wife (she won't go to church to pray for her husband because kneeling makes her hose baggy) and a hard-bitten hack reporter (Kirk Douglas) who wants to milk the story by prolonging the rescue effort.

Guettel and Landau's historically more accurate version dispenses with the wife (Floyd wasn't married), instead exploring Floyd's relationships with his family--handsome, venturesome brother Homer, mentally ill sister Nellie, farmer father--and with Skeets Miller, the Louisville Courier-Journal reporter whose syndicated articles brought Floyd's situation to national attention. The media's corrupting impact on the crisis emerges as a major subplot only in the second act, when the victim, his loved ones, and Skeets himself are transformed into celebrities in a way that recalls recent media attention to the Columbine High School shootings. (When a filmmaker tells Floyd's brother, "You can't just feel the pain inside. You gotta show it," one can just imagine a TV interviewer coaching a Littleton teenager about the appropriate on-camera attitude.)

In the musical Skeets is nothing like the cynical manipulator played by Douglas in The Big Carnival. Instead he's a cub reporter assigned because his editor assumes Floyd's predicament is a publicity gimmick--a twerpy little wordsmith who dictates proper punctuation when he calls in his story. But this reporter is transformed by Floyd's harrowing fate into a haunted man, wise before his time--he's entranced by the uneducated Floyd's instinctive sense of a link between the physical and the metaphysical. People who live close to the earth have traditionally found certain places, caves in particular, to be sources of spiritual power, and what Floyd at first hopes will be prime real estate becomes a site of death and rebirth for both him and Skeets. Skeets's repeated journeys to interview and finally to try to save Floyd recall Orpheus's failed forays into the underworld to rescue Eurydice. Indeed, our knowledge that Floyd Collins died underground parallels the myth's suggestion that Eurydice's fate is preordained, both by the gods and by human nature: Orpheus can retrieve Eurydice only if he resists looking at her, which he's unable to do.

Floyd's entrapment certainly reveals the human nature of those surrounding him. His father succumbs to despair, feeling that he could have somehow prevented the accident; brother Homer breaks away from the family, drawn by the lure of fame and driven by pressures at home; a publicity-seeking mining engineer named H.T. Carmichael insists on leading the rescue mission, only to be humiliated when it fails; and Skeets makes his name as a reporter but must live with the sorrow of losing a friend. The great strength of Floyd Collins--whose script is as lean and nourishing as a venison steak--is that it treats the characters' experiences credibly, simply but never simplemindedly. At a time when too many big musicals force-feed audiences processed emotions in bombastically sentimental songs belted out by characters whose one-dimensionality is intended to make them "accessible," this moving, intelligent work sticks to the details, striking universal resonances through them instead of sweeping generalizations and bathetic platitudes.

Landau's inventive staging--bolstered by marvelous contributions from designers James Schuette (set), Scott Zielinski (lighting), Melina Root (costumes), and Dan Moses Schreier (sound)--celebrates theater as an act of make-believe. Against a bare backdrop lit in moodily changing colors, the cast's consistently interesting but never dancey movement holds our interest in a story whose piteous outcome we already know. Textured supporting performances are provided by Clarke Thorell as Homer, Kim Huber as the visionary Nellie, John Taylor as Floyd's father, Anne Allgood as his stepmother, John Ahlin as Carmichael, and Michael-Leon Wooley, Marty Higginbotham, and Jacob Garrett White as a trio of townsfolk. Jack Donahue, James Moye, and Ryan Perry have a delicious second-act turn as three big-city reporters, singing a Bob Wills-style western-swing trio whose slick harmonies contrast tellingly with the fluid mountain-music idiom.

But key to the show are Frugé's performance as Floyd and Guy Adkins's as Skeets. Adkins's boyish appearance contrasts perfectly with his growing gravity as he recognizes his subject's mortality--and his own. Frugé, meanwhile, is simply astonishing, conveying a mercurial range of feeling as a man facing the end of his luck and his life. Whether leaping and crawling about the stage--periodic fantasy sequences reflect Floyd's dying consciousness--or lying perfectly still on the simple plank that represents the ledge he's pinned to, Frugé registers the most subtle, fleeting thoughts and feelings through his emotional openness and agile athleticism and by employing a supple singing voice well suited to the yelps and yodels that permeate his songs. His appealing mix of innocence and grit makes you fall in love with this eccentric character yet never compromises Floyd's streak of isolation, essential to a loner who digs around in caves to find peace. Frugé's enormous talent never undercuts our belief in his frail, doomed character, a fact that makes him the perfect anchor for this risky, exciting, beautiful work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T. Charles Erickson.

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