Tally Sessions and Brian Charles Rooney: A new high watermark
Tally Sessions and Brian Charles Rooney: A new high watermark

Right Show, Wrong Crowd

In a hurry? Me too, so I'll get to the point. This is a review of Floyd Collins, an innovative musical that's got a week or two left in its run at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. The story is based on a real incident in the 1920s, when a man got stuck in a Kentucky cave and became a national celebrity because of it. The music for this show is beautiful, strange, and difficult. Reportedly half of the audience at the opening night walked out at intermission. More on those people later. But for now, hear this: Floyd Collins is far and away the best show seen in these parts for at least as long as I have been on this job. It is the new high watermark for theater production in South Florida. If you want to witness the level of quality that can be produced here, and the level of quality that local audiences should regularly demand, see this fabulous, difficult, mesmerizing show. Got it? Go!

The facts of this show merit review. Floyd Collins premiered in New York City in 1994. Its music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel. The original director, Tina Landau, also wrote the book (the storyline and spoken dialogue) and added other lyrics. The story takes place during eighteen days in early 1925 in the hill country of Kentucky, home of the famous tourist attraction, the Mammoth Caves. A local lad, Floyd Collins, sets out to discover another cavern system, figuring he can develop it as another attraction and make his fortune. He finds his fortune, all right. He discovers a huge cavern complex, but on his return to the surface, his foot gets pinned under a fallen boulder. And there he lies, trapped, 150 feet underground. In the dark. The community soon learns of his plight, and his younger brother Homer goes down to free Floyd. But the crawlspace is too small for Homer to help his brother. Soon after, a diminutive cub reporter from a Louisville newspaper, Skeets Miller, has a go. He manages to reach Floyd and interview him. The resulting article prompts a flood of reporters, hucksters, and onlookers, as the Floyd Collins story makes headlines coast to coast.

Floyd Collins is a hybrid show, one that straddles an ambiguous line between musical and opera. Its music is challenging, combining simple licks with complex harmonies, key and rhythm changes, lyrics that ramble and wander, songs that meld one into another. There's no overture, and its opening number is a meandering musical solo as Floyd makes his serpentine descent into the deep darkness below the freezing Kentucky hills. Such a stark opening is an innovation, as untraditional as the simple opening solo of Oklahoma!, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning," decades ago. In fact the Floyd Collins opener might be considered a direct, if intentionally ironic, tribute to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Floyd's composer, Adam Guettel, happens to be the grandson of Oklahoma!'s composer, Richard Rodgers. Guettel's music ranges from pop to folk ballad to bluegrass and hymnlike structures. His gorgeous duet, "Lucky," written for two female voices, sounds like postmodern Mozart.


Floyd Collins

Book by Tina Landau, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, additional lyrics by Landau, directed by David Arisco. With: Oscar Cheda, Ken Clement, Mark Filosa, Brian M. Golub, Jerry Gulledge, Blythe Gruda, Terry King, Brian Charles Rooney, Tally Sessions, Lourelene Snedeker, Wayne Steadman, Barry Tarrallo, and Michael Turner. Through March 30 by the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-444-9293.

Tina Landau's book follows two paths. One is Floyd's slow progress from boundless optimism to searing despair as the reality of his predicament dawns on him. The other tracks the community -- family, friends, and neighbors -- that slowly unravels under the relentless glare of media celebrity. Newspapermen make heroes out of bystanders and twist the facts to their own purposes. A songwriting neighbor pens a ballad that features the neighbor as the rescuer. An officious mining engineer uses the event to promote his own career. Even Floyd's God-fearing father turns to hucksterism, selling photos of Floyd and tours of the family farm to the hordes of gawkers who descend on his town. All of these characters are plausible and understandable, but they aren't sentimentalized. All may feel for Floyd, but that doesn't prevent them from exploiting his misery. That exploitation really is at the heart of this completely American story. Floyd's a big-spirited optimist, an entrepreneurial Huck Finn, who's sure he'll find his cavern and make a barrel of money. But when this attraction developer himself becomes the attraction, he's preyed upon by more than the crickets and worms that come to feed on him. The show is also a spiritual meditation on human hope and self-delusion, with obvious parallels to the Christ story of crucifixion, entombment, and transcendence.

The show is given a stunning production. David Arisco uses elements from the original Landau staging -- a spare set of platforms and scaffolds to represent the hills above and the caverns below. Arisco wisely forgoes realistic theatrics, relying on physical movement, sound, lights, and the audience's imagination to create the physical settings. Arisco is equally effective staging the quiet, emotional scenes with Floyd below and the large, carnival-crowd scenes up top. It's easily his best work of the past several seasons. As Floyd's desperate imagination begins to take over his thinking, Arisco's staging gets more dreamlike, then nightmarish, to tremendous theatrical effect.

Arisco is very fortunate in his cast. In the title role, Talley Sessions is magnificent, tracking Floyd's emotional zigzags as he careens from panic to confidence to despair. The physical and musical demands of this role are formidable, but Sessions handles all with assurance and full commitment. He's especially strong in his detailed musical phrasing, and his final solo, "How Glory Goes," is indelible. Brian Charles Rooney as Floyd's restless, moviestruck brother Homer, and Blythe Gruda as their troubled, spooky sister Nellie are superb. But the entire ensemble, which is double- and triple-cast to portray an array of locals, reporters, soldiers, and the like, merit the highest praise. So does the playhouse's production team, which delivers exceptional work here. Using two turntables, Gene Seyyfer's scaffold set is an ever-shifting arrangement of levels and shapes, a perfect visual metaphor for the shifting, crumbling environment. In this story, human community is no more stable than the ground it's built on. Mary Lynne Izzo's costumes tell stories of their own, from the grimy drab work clothes of the hill people to the flashy suits and overcoats of the city slickers. Stuart Reiter's lighting is elegant, evocative -- all ambers and steely blues in the first act, then carnival purples and pinks in the second. Nate Rausch's sound designs have long been a standout on the local theater scene, but here he has outdone himself, as the hissing of shifting sand, the horrible bass rumble of a landslide, the endless echoes of a cavern chamber combine to create a cave of the imagination.

Yet there's one big problem with this show, and I will give it to you as an aphorism: Too much success can kill you. Actors' Playhouse has long packed its houses by toadying to the lowest possible denominator in programming. AP has a strong base audience all right, but this audience's idea of sophisticated entertainment is 4 Guys Named José, a musical that might have been considered challenging a half-century ago. Year after year, Barbara Stein and Arisco have opted for lineups of mindless shows, many of which are staged as mere copies of their Broadway or movie predecessors. So now Floyd Collins, their greatest artistic success, is naturally a box office disaster. Their usual boneheaded audience doesn't understand, doesn't want this kind of material.

The bill has come due for Actors' Playhouse, which is faced with three hard choices. One, stop doing challenging shows like Floyd. This is an option that would be a disaster for the South Florida arts community. Few companies have the means that AP does, and if AP doesn't do this kind of material, it just won't get done here. Two, dump the present AP subscriber base and find a crowd more willing to confront challenging material. This is impractical and probably impossible. Look around, folks. How many forward-thinking people do you find clogging the roads and byways of our fair, culturally challenged peninsula?

A third option seems best: Stein, Arisco, and company have to slowly but persistently bring their core audience along toward an appreciation of more sophisticated programming. Right now AP's season-picking strategy is just a tradeoff: Stein gets the mindless crowd-pleasers that bring in the bucks, and Arisco gets a treasured bone or two, like Floyd Collins. That's a political agreement, not an artistic strategy. You don't jump from The Sound of Music or mindless murder mysteries to Floyd Collins -- the leap is too far for the core audience. You're talking about a completely different set of expectations and aesthetics. AP needs to program more carefully. Try some accessible Sondheim -- A Little Night Music, then maybe Company, then Sweeney Todd. By the time AP audiences can hang with Pacific Overture, then maybe they can appreciate Floyd Collins. Without this kind of audience development, the artistic success of a Floyd Collins won't be able to argue, in the long run, with its evil twin, box office disaster, and the head-wagging naysayers will simply use Floyd as an example of what not to do. If so, South Florida loses a tremendous opportunity to drag Actors' Playhouse kicking and screaming toward what it should be -- the flagship theater company in this region.


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