“No more plowing a hard-scrabble field, I just know it’s my lucky day!” Evan Casey’s voice rings through the 1st Stage Theater as he navigates the narrow confines of a deep underground cave. His character, Floyd Collins, is searching for a way out of the hard-scrabble Kentucky “cave country” life of the 1920s, a life in which local farmers toil in poverty but those lucky enough to find caves under their property can attract tourists and acquire wealth and local fame.
Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau, tells the true story of Floyd Collins, who, while attempting to find an entrance to a cave on his property, becomes trapped deep underground with only sporadic contact with the outside world. Floyd’s personal disaster becomes public spectacle as first journalists and then spectators descend on the scene creating a carnival-like atmosphere as Collins withers in the cave.
The musical is based on real events of 1925, when Collins’ entrapment created one of the nation’s first media frenzies as his plight was hyped by overzealous journalists through print and broadcast radio. The ordeal of Floyd Collins was the third most covered U.S. media event between World War I and World War II.
1st Stage’s production of Floyd Collins is first-rate in every sense. Veteran DC area director Nick Olcott’s focus on the relationships between members of the Collins family created a great feeling of tenderness throughout the production. In addition, the well thought-out staging allowed the story to unfold seamlessly. Clever use of cast and costumes created a feeling of escalating chaos as “outsiders” arrived and wrested control of the situation from Floyd’s family.
Every actor on the stage gave a strong, commendable performance. The score to Floyd Collins is not one to be tackled by novices and these actors aced the complex vocals.
Evan Casey, as Floyd Collins, performed the improbable feat of rippling with energy and enthusiasm even as he was pinned motionless inside a cave. He contributed beautiful vocals all through the show and especially on “And She’d Have Blue Eyes” and the spine-tingling finale “How Glory Goes.”
John Sygar’s performance as Floyd’s brother Homer Collins was particularly strong. The moments between the two brothers were some of my favorite in the production as they gave audience members insight into the bond they shared. A vocally complex duet between the brothers, called “Daybreak,” was achieved with great warmth and affection and a later flashback scene in which they revisit the adventures of their youth put tears in my eyes.
The rest of the Collins family added to the feelings of family cohesion that permeated the production. Maggie Donnelly, another D.C. area veteran, shone as Floyd’s sister Nellie, a role that put her vocal skills front and center where they belong as displayed in her stirring rendition of “Through the Mountain.”
Rounding out the tight-knit family were Scott Sedar and Jennifer Lyons Pagnard as Floyd’s father and step-mother. Sedar was excellent as a simple, self-doubting patriarch who questioned his own decisions while being perhaps too quick to place his faith in the “outsiders” who had come to extricate his son from the cave. Pagnard played an excellent matriarch who provided a much needed sense of stability and security for the entire family. They deliver a heartwarming and sensitive performance of “Heart An’ Hand.”
Two notable “outsiders” rounded out the cast. Joshua Simon is H. T. Carmichael, the unlikeable-by-design engineer who was in charge of the rescue operation. His snooty, condescending attitude toward the locals made my skin prickle.
Edward C. Nagel navigated the emotional complexity of playing “Skeets” Miller, the reporter who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the event, with aplomb.
Perhaps more than most shows, the success of a production of Floyd Collins depends on a successful technical team. Think about it: The action alternates between the surface and a cave deep below the earth. How do you DO that on a stage? I was very eager to see how Set Designer Joe Musumeci would pull this off and he did not disappoint. The set was comprised of a deceptively simple looking hillside. Only once the action started was the ingeniousness of the design revealed as pieces of this hill proved to be removable, allowing us to watch as the actors effortlessly moved above and below ground. Kay Rzasa designed the effective props.
The lighting and sound design also contributed to the realistic feeling of descending into a cave. During the cave scenes the lights, designed by Brian S. Allard, evoked the cold clamminess of a cave while the sound design, by Kenny Neal, created cave echoes that melded perfectly into Floyd’s songs, allowing him to sing duets with himself.
The costumes by Robert Croghan, and props by Deb Crerie are period perfect, clearly establishing that we are in 1925 rural Kentucky while also highlighting who is a local and who is an outsider.
While Floyd Collins is not heavy on song and dance numbers, Choreographers Michael Bobbitt and Rachel Dolan outdid themselves with the show’s one razzamatazz show tune. In “Is That Remarkable,” Dolan opens the show’s second act with a burst of energy and humor as the ensemble introduces us to the bevy of reporters, thrill-seekers, and balloon salesman who have descended upon the cave site. Although the cast has not grown during intermission, the creative choreography conveys the sense of increased activity at the cave site.
The complex yet completely accessible score by Adam Guettel deserves mention. If the name Adam Guettel isn’t familiar to you, then the name of his very famous grandfather, Richard Rodgers, most likely is. Although Guettel is descended from musical theater royalty – In addition to his famous grandfather, his mother Mary Rodgers composed Once Upon a Mattress – his musical style is more reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim than Richard Rodgers and he is frequently compared to the classical composers Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky due to his penchant for complex, atonal melodies. Guettel is best known as the composer of The Light in the Piazza. Whereas Piazza is often described as operatic, the Floyd Collins score takes early 20th Century Americana music and meshes it with more elaborate, circuitous, and haunting musical forms.
To bring this incredible music to life, Musical Director William Yanesh leads a team of three string players and a drummer as he conducts from keyboard. Combined with the guitar played onstage by Harrison Smith as Jewell Estes (Smith leads a moving reprise of “The Ballad of Floyd Collins”), the musicians bring the sounds of early 2oth Century hill country to life.
1st Stages production of Floyd Collins brings to life the suffering of the Collins family and questions the unattractive human quality that allows people to turn the suffering of strangers into a spectator sport. It is a beautiful and thought-provoking show and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Director Nick Olcott on Directing ‘Floyd Collins’ at 1st Stage by Joel Markowitz.