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Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

It is hard to believe that the celebrated 1994 Adam Guettel-Tina Landau musical, Floyd Collins, is only now having its Buffalo debut. Under the assured direction of Jeffrey Coyle and musical direction of Allan Paglia, American Repertory Theater of Western New York has taken on the piece with an intimate and appealing production, smartly designed by Matthew LaChiusa, and beautifully lit by Emma Schimminger.

Set in Kentucky in the winter of 1925, cave explorer Floyd Collins is searching the recesses of Sand Cave, hoping to find an entrance to the spectacular Mammoth system of cave formations and thereby ensure his impoverished family’s fortune and security. Using the echoes of his voice and the song of crickets to sound out the narrow twists and turns below the earth (hauntingly evoked through Guettel’s music), he accidentally drops his lamp. In the darkness, his foot becomes stuck beneath a wedge shaped rock. Floyd Collins is trapped.

Days go by. As successive attempts to rescue Collins fail, a media frenzy ignites above him. As the circus mounts, below ground Collins becomes increasingly withdrawn. When rescuers finally reach him, the man has died.

Opening Shots

Floyd Collins, ART at Theatre East

Top: Steve Copps, who plays Floyd Collins, with author, caver, and Floyd Collins authority Roger W. Brucker, who conducted a post-performance talk-back, with ART artistic director and set designer Matthew LaChiusa. Middle: Adam Yellen, who plays reporter Skeets Miller, with cast members Dudney Joseph and Christopher Andreana. Bottom: Rich Kraemer, who plays farmer Bee Doyle, with Pamela Rose Mangus, who plays Jane Collins, and Victor Morales, who plays H. T. Carmichael.

This true story was the first incident of on-sight reporting by mass media to obsess the nation. It was one of the largest news stories of the 1920s. The tale exposes the best and worst of human beings who are capable both of heroic acts of self-sacrifice and of exploiting the tragedies of others. Through his innovative score, Adam Guettel expresses the story in a sophisticated blend of American folk music and classical forms.

The uncommonly talented cast at ART features Steve Copps as Floyd Collins, JR Finan as his brother Homer, Courtney Weather as his vulnerable but spirited sister Nellie, Pamela Rose Mangus as his father’s wife, Miss Jane, Gary Darling as his repressive father, and Adam Yellen as reporter and would-be rescuer Skeets Miller.

Victor Morales plays arguably well intentioned but domineering businessman, H. T. Carmichael, who takes over the rescue operation, largely to advance himself. Dudney Joseph plays neighbor Jewel Estes; Steven E. Sitzman plays Ed Bishop; Rich Kraemer plays farmer Bee Doyle. Josh Snyder, Christopher Andreana, and Erin Brignon play a variety of local people, reporters, and visitors to the sight of the tragedy.

The show was first performed in 1994, and opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1996. It won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Obie Award for its score. Guettel, grandson of Broadway titan Richard Rodgers, was hailed as the next great American composer for the theater. He would later write the similarly impressive The Light in the Piazza. Floyd Collins has been seen around the country, and in a well-received Shaw Festival production, but until now, not in Buffalo.

In addition to the brilliant score, Tina Landau’s script explores the conflicts within and between people. Floyd is a risk-taker, but is ultimately able to accept responsibility for his fate. Journalist Skeeter Miller regrets his role in making a carnival of Floyd’s tragedy. Floyd’s father cannot understand how his religious faith and earnest intentions have lead him to unhappiness and three flawed children. When his bullying ends in failure, domineering businessman H. T. Carmichael experiences sincere regret, or something close to it.

Steve Copps is vocally strong and emotionally believable as Floyd Collins. His performance provides an anchor for the entire production.

Adam Yellen is particularly pleasing as eager Skeets Miller, an endearing character who unwittingly exacerbates a tragedy at the start of the age of mass media. Finan and Weather give steady and likable performances as Collins’ complicated siblings; and Darling and Mangus lend skill and deft acting chops to Jane and Lee Collins.

Musically, the production is especially impressive on the duets. The sometimes lilting, sometimes soulful, and sometimes soaring instrumentals are lovely.

Even as I recommend this handsome production, audiences should be advised not to expect Hello Dolly! from Floyd Collins. While the evening is full of bright moments and rich theatrical treasures, this is a dark and introspective musical with a sophisticated score.

On the night I saw the show, cave explorer Roger W. Brucker, author of Trapped: The Story of Floyd Collins, was in attendance, and declared the production to be one of the two best among the nearly 20 he has seen. He and his wife, Lynn, admired the set by Matthew LaChiusa, which they said captured the feel and claustrophobia of a cave. Brucker generously stayed to answer audience questions about the real life Collins, the writing of his book, his personal memories of Skeets Miller, and his expansive knowledge of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky.