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The Ballad of Floyd Collins

Though Adam Guettel's acclaimed musical may never get to Broadway, its underground hero is now making his Boston debut.

Michael Mendiola as Floyd Collins
Funny, as in strange, that one of the most influential new musicals to have come along in years has not yet been seen on Broadway. After its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Floyd Collins steadily gained cult status and continues to have a life outside of New York. The show's first incarnation was in Philadelphia in 1994. The following year, it moved to Playwrights, where it impressed many; but it failed to transfer to a larger venue. In 1999, a mini-tour that brought a new production of Floyd to San Diego, Philly, and Chicago regenerated interest in bringing the show to Broadway. There was talk of getting it to BAM, but that never happened. Many people still hope it will make its way back to NYC, somewhere.

In the meantime, regional theater is where Floyd is at. It has become apparent in the last few years that the newer, perhaps more experimental brand of musicals simply cannot survive on Broadway, and slowly these shows are beginning to turn up in the country's more adventurous playhouses. Jeanine Tesori's Violet and William Finn's A New Brain, to name a couple, are thriving in all corners of the U.S., and Floyd appears to be joining their ranks. SpeakEasy Stage Company, which has produced both of the above-mentioned musicals, is currently offering the Boston premiere of the Guettel-Landau show.

Floyd Collins is a thoroughly American book musical--that elusive thing that so many people seem to be crying out for--and yet a musical unlike any that has come before. Its uniqueness is due largely to the distinctive talents of composer-lyricist Guettel, who here employs a kind of Mahler-meets-Bill Monroe style. The result is a bluegrass sound with a clearly classical influence, strangely appropriate for this true story of the eponymous Kentucky spelunker who dreamed of finding fame and fortune in the form of a great sand cave that people would come from miles around to see. At the top of the show, as Floyd is exploring a cave and realizes it's "the one," he gets trapped. Now, it takes a lot of guts to write a musical about a man trapped in cave, and a lot of talent to pull off a production of such a show. Fortunately, SpeakEasy is up to the challenge of the material.

The theater-in-the-round at Boston Center for the Arts, where Floyd Collins is playing, immediately sets the atmosphere. True, we don't get the claustrophobic feeling that must come from shimmying through the "squeezes and bends" as Floyd does; on the other hand, when our hero reaches the cavern that he seeks, it's almost like we're right there with him. The set designed by Eric Levenson consists mostly of a system of wooden planks, ramps, and ladders that indicate both the cave innards and the sparse world above. A simple background screen is used to good effect, as is Levenson's lighting design.

As Floyd, Michael Mendiola works his way around the stage, sharing the beauty and excitement of the great sandstone cave that he seems to be discovering just for us--that is, until his leg is trapped by a rock. It isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened, and soon Floyd's brother Homer and the local men are making the effort to get him out. None of them can reach him in the cave until a tenacious cub reporter named Skeets Miller gives it a try; he's able to fit his small frame through the tight squeeze and get near enough to Floyd to bring him food and attempt to free his leg. All the while, up above, Floyd's family, friends, and an outsider named Carmichael hold vigil as a media circus descends on the small town.

Mendiola is brilliantly real as Floyd, a dreamer who finds himself in a nightmare that he isn't prepared to accept till the very end. In addition to a fine voice, this performer has an earnestness of expression that makes Floyd's transition from adventurousness to joy to pain seem potent and heartrending. Brad Evans brings a sincerity to the role of Skeets that keeps the character honest; there is a striking shift from eagerness to disillusionment as the young reporter comes to realize that media attention often does more harm than good. Job Emerson as Floyd's father Lee Collins, Kerry A. Dowling as his stepmother Jane, and Jose Delgado as Homer lack a bit of the genuine earthiness of their characters, but all are exceptional singers--a blessing in this complex score. Delgado deserves special praise for his clear, effortless singing of "Daybreak" and "The Riddle Song." The fourth family member, Floyd's sister Nellie, is played by Bridget Beirne in a standout performance. Nellie's questionable sanity, her extreme devotion and almost psychic connection to Floyd, make her easy to overplay; but Beirne offers a lovely characterization, spirited and sad, to match her estimable singing ability. (She also does some understated but nonetheless impressive dancing, a kind of rhythmic Appalachian stomp choreographed by Kirsten McKinney.)

Blessedly, these excellent performances are accompanied by an excellent orchestra, conducted by Paul Katz; Bruce Coughlin's remarkable orchestrations fare quite well here. Seldom are such uniformly great voices and musicians brought together to play such a phenomenal score. It's a perfect marriage of all the elements, to the credit of musical director Douglas Horner. Ben Arons must also be given credit for his sound design. On occasion, it's hard to make out some lyrics (an almost unavoidable problem when working on this kind of stage); but the sound quality is very good overall, and is particularly impressive in the sections where Floyd is singing in counterpoint with himself as his echoes bounce off the walls of the cave.

Michael Mendiola and Bridget Beirne
in Floyd Collins
The ensemble of the SpeakEasy production is equally first-rate. All of them are fabulous singers, and almost all of them get the Kentucky accent right, thanks to dialect coach Nina Pleasants. Among the ensemble are the men that work for Lee Collins, led by young Jewell Estes (Chris Lambrix). For those familiar with the cast recording of Floyd Collins, it should be noted that "'Tween a Rock and a Hard Place," in which these men compare their own stories of escape from near-death situations, has been replaced by a song called "Where A Man Belongs." This number has the same effect of building a portrait of the men but also helps to acquaint us with the attitudes of the workers of Barren County, Kentucky.

Tina Landau's book is commendable for a number of reasons, including its sensitivity to story and character, not to mention fine dialogue and a strong structure; yet it is problematic due to a certain lack of focus. The trouble may have arisen from the fact that what we have in Floyd Collins is a true story encompassing a variety of fascinating ideas. Skeets Miller's dual role as reporter and attempted rescuer, and the media frenzy which takes place as Floyd lies trapped in the cave, raise questions about the responsibility of the media and the voyeuristic urges of our nation. The manner of Floyd's death prompts musings on the nature of the American dream. Then there are myriad issues, big and small, pertaining to Floyd's family and community: How does Bee Doyle, the man whose farm Floyd is exploring, feel about the manipulation and possible destruction of his family's land? How do the Collins children feel about their stepmother, and how has their mother's death affected them? What of the special relationship between Floyd and Nellie, which has a tinge of incest about it? How can these people, living in a barren land, continue to survive? And does outside influence inevitably corrupt them?

Maybe a future revision will bring more thematic focus to the musical. As it stands, Floyd Collins is a moving dramatization of a small American tragedy. It's the human story that prevails here; by the end of the show, one is more concerned with Floyd and the people in his life than with what they might represent. As Floyd's family and friends struggle to save his life, they learn harsh truths about themselves and the world. And, as Floyd lays trapped and fearing death, he learns how to let go of his initial dream and move on to a far greater glory. Floyd Collins resonates differently within each individual who experiences it, and SpeakEasy Stage has created a production well worth the experience.

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