KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 24, 1999
MUSIC: yodel from “The Call”
That’s the sound of a caver calling into a deep, dark space, to see if there’s a cavern within. It’s the seminal sound of “Floyd Collins,” the 1994 musical just remounted and co-produced at the Old Globe Theatre, before it goes off on tour.
Based on a true story, “Floyd Collins” concerns a Kentucky farmer who was more comfortable underground than above, a loner who hoped to make his mark on the world from down below. In 1925, in a county filled with cavers and dreamers, Floyd set out to find an enormous cavern, which he intended to open to the public, to great local and personal acclaim. As he wriggled into a tiny space, a 20-pound rock fell on his foot, entrapping him. Once the walls began to collapse, only the smallest, slimmest man was able to reach him. Newsman Skeets Miller is the only one who fits, and his interviews with Floyd spark national interest. Soon, tens of thousands of people are flocking to the site, and a media frenzy ensues, with a full-fledged carnival up above and Floyd all but forgotten underground, in a harrowing, 17-day entombment.
Working from the factual records, composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and writer-director Tina Landau have created a grim but exhilarating bi-level musical; we’re both underground and above at all times. Floyd, pinned in place for most of the play, talks to himself, imagines his emergence and success, and ultimately confronts death. These fantasies allow him to get up and cavort a bit, and save the piece from being overly bleak and lifeless. Up above, there are Collins family feuds and never-ending quarrels about how best to rescue Floyd. The big guns come in from the big city, with their macho plans and equipment, but even those attempts fail, and the locals start to give up hope. But the reporters are relentless, inventing news if there isn’t any. This gives rise to the high-point and show-stopper of the evening, a funny, sarcastic, hilariously-staged act 2 opener.
MUSIC: “Is That Remarkable?”
That’s the urban, jazzy sound of the city, while the rest of Guettel’s often-provocative score is distinctly bluegrass and country/folk, with the unmistakable influence of Stephen Sondheim and Aaron Copland. There are some beautiful, aching ballads, with elegant harmonies, such as “Lucky,” the ironic duet between Floyd’s sister and his stepmother.
There’s down-home simplicity to the lyrics, though they and the book get a bit heavy-handed in the second act, as they push toward the preachy and quasi-religious. But sometimes, it all comes together magically, and we are swept up in this dusty reality. One thing that helps is the brilliant sound-design, which, with its creaking wood beams, crumbling sand-walls and echoing cave-calls, envelops us in sound and makes us feel that we’re inside that cave, too. The lighting is subtly evocative, beginning with a sunrise tableau and ending with Floyd walking off into the sunset.
Landau’s direction is terrific; she creates gorgeous stage pictures, and figures out all sorts of ways to suggest, without demonstrating, rope-swings and rappelling, rescue efforts and flights of fancy. The cast is excellent, and many of them bear striking resemblances to their real-life counterparts, shown in old photos displayed in the Globe lobby. Most of the characters are suggestions rather than fully-fleshed, multi-dimensional people, but all together, they represent a powerful portrait of America, with all its dreams and hopes and fantasies, its greed and venality, and its never-ending fascination with personal tragedy and disaster.
MUSIC , under and out: “Ballad of Floyd Collins”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.