— Production image
Just before I went to opening night of Floyd Collins, the latest musical from director Peter Jorgensen’s Patrick Street Productions at the York Theatre, I watched the SXSW story on the six o’clock news and then on Entertainment Tonight. Some idiot fleeing from the cops raced his car down an Austin, Texas street crowded with South by Southwest concertgoers, killing two people and injuring many others.
The news story focused on the carnage, but the much longer ET coverage was mostly concerned with the reactions of the bystanders who witnessed it, their vicarious emotional trauma and the excitement of the guys who captured the immediate aftermath on their cell phones and became instant media experts. And of course there was the response of the real celebrities, highlighted by Lady Gaga’s tweet: “All my love to music lovers and fans …”
Composer Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins is in part about one of the first such American media circuses and our ongoing appetite for tragedy-as-spectacle. The historical Floyd Collins was a Kentucky caver. In 1925, crawling through a large underground cave he thought he could turn into a tourist attraction, he got stuck in a narrow passageway deep below ground.
The attempts to save him became a national sensation, the hour-by-hour story syndicated in hundreds of newspapers and further amplified through the new medium of radio. Thousands of people converged on the Kentucky field over what would become Floyd’s grave, turning the site into part country fair, part carnival.
Guettel’s musical treats the media spectacle and commodification of Floyd’s unhappy accident as its secondary theme, though one of the show’s most dynamic song-and-sort-of-dance numbers features a trio of reporters (Jay Davis, Graham Coffeng, Michael Culp) blithely distorting the details of the event. Floyd’s bible-thumping father (Kevin McNulty) happily sells pictures and gives tours, while Floyd’s intense brother Homer (Michael Torontow) gets offers to be in film and vaudeville.
But the center of all this action is Floyd himself, imprisoned under immovable rock in the damp underground darkness. As Floyd, Daren Herbert spends most of the show lying on his back downstage, below a slab of designer Amir Ofek’s suggestive set, his leg crushed, only his face illuminated in a tight pool of light. What does a man think about–and sing about–under such circumstances, facing his own mortality?
Not all that much in Floyd’s case. He’s an optimistic guy, sure he’s got luck on his side. He’s certain he’s going to get out and fulfill his modest dream of escaping his family’s life of hardscrabble farming by turning his cave into a full-fledged tourist attraction, complete with refreshment stand and curio shop open seven days a week. He also sings a song about the girl he imagines marrying once he’s free.
An impressive actor and terrific singer, Herbert manages to maintain a strong connection with the audience even while lying on his back mostly in the dark and keeping his Floyd low-key and unhysterical. I was reminded of the movie 127 Hours and James Franco’s character calmly considering sawing his arm off to free himself from the rock trapping him. Cutting off Floyd’s leg is a possibility in the play, but it proves impractical.
The equivalent in Floyd Collins of the 127 Hours flashback scenes is a couple of fantasy/memory sequences where Floyd gets up and cavorts about the stage with Homer and his slightly brain-addled sister and soul-mate Nellie (Krystin Pellerin). These three are the strongest singers in the show. Along with “Skeets” Miller (Andrew Wade), a little newspaperman who manages to crawl down to Floyd and befriend him during his ordeal, they’re also the strongest characters. They get a little lost amid the large ensemble cast of 13, and the show would be better if we got to spend more time with these four.
Nellie is an especially compelling character, and Pellerin–both earthy and otherworldly in long dress and boots, ratty sweater and man’s hat, courtesy of costumer Barbara Clayden–delivers a haunting performance. Her exchange of yodels with Herbert, their voices echoing through the cave like subterranean scatting, is the show’s vocal highlight.
Which brings me to the music. Guettel is the darling of the New Music musical, which tends to be more popular with New York critics than with audiences. Guettel’s score for Floyd Collins combines bluegrass (Nathan Carroll on acoustic guitar and banjo) with difficult diachronic, almost atonal structures derived from the likes of Stravinsky and Bartok (violin, cello, double bass, percussion and the keyboards of musical director Jonathan Monro). It’s unmelodic, enormously hard to sing, but more importantly it’s emotionally unengaging.
Despite the fascinating story and standout performances, the audience doesn’t come away with much. Tina Landau’s book is short on both character development and plot, settling instead for variations on a few themes. And Guettel’s largely banal lyrics don’t compensate for his distancing music. It’s fascinating to imagine what Stephen Sondheim might have made of Floyd’s tale.