Published in In Theater

“The Ballad of Floyd Collins” is more than just the plaintive opening number. It could be the tale of the show’s evolution.

Commissioned in 1994 by the American Music Theatre Festival of Philadelphia, “Floyd Collins” opened at Playwrights Horizons in the busy 1996 season, up against “Rent” and “Noise/Funk.” It got lost in the shuffle; though it won an Obie, a Lucille Lortel Award and a Drama Desk nomination for Best Musical, it had a sadly foreshortened New York run.  

The original cast album of Adam Guettel’s haunting score was released; then composer/lyricist Guettel and librettist/director Tina Landau went on to other projects. Now, with a touring co-production, beginning at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre (through March 21) and moving on to the American Music Theatre Festival (April 3-17) and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (May 3-June 5), the dazzling creative team has taken another peek (and tweak) at their baby, before sending it out into the world. The changes are minimal, but the show deserves another look-and-listen.

Based on a true story, “Floyd Collins” concerns a Kentucky farmer/caver/loner who, in 1925, goes down deep to find his fortune, by discovering an enormous cavern. One hundred feet down, he wriggles into a tiny space, and a 20-pound rock falls on his foot, entrapping him. As the walls begin to collapse, only the slim little newsman, Skeets Miller, can squeeze in. Miller’s interviews with Floyd go national and attract thousands of gawkers and hawkers; a media frenzy ensues, with Floyd all but forgotten in a harrowing, 17-day entombment.

Guettel and Landau have created an intense, grim but frequently exhilarating musical. Though pinned in place for most of the play, Floyd’s fantasies allow him to get up and cavort a bit, saving the piece from being overly bleak and lifeless. Above-ground, there are Collins family feuds and quarrels about the rescue. The reporters are relentless, inventing news if there isn’t any, as illustrated in the funny, sarcastic, hilariously-staged Act 2 opener, “Is That Remarkable?”

That’s the urban, jazzy, swing-sound of the city, while the rest of Guettel’s often-provocative score is distinctly bluegrass and country/folk, with dissonant references to Stephen Sondheim and Aaron Copland. There’s a 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, all the elements coalesce, and we’re swept up in this dusty reality — with the help of a brilliant sound-design (James Schuette) which, with its creaking wood beams, crumbling sand-walls and surround-sound echoes, makes us feel that we’re inside that cave, too.

Landau creates gorgeous stage pictures, and her all-new cast is superb, especially Romain Fruge as Floyd, Clarke Thorell as his brother and Guy Adkins as Skeets. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, but, taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of America, with all its dreams and cockeyed optimism, its greed and venality, and its never-ending fascination with personal tragedy.

So, how does the ballad end?   Well, Floyd doesn’t make it… but what about his musical? As the caver himself sings at the end of the show, “Only heaven knows where glory goes….”       

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.