Floyd Collins, now on stage at Blank Canvas Theatre, isn’t your typical musical. There is no dancing, no showstopper production numbers, no intentional humor, no subplot, no “I wish for” numbers. It’s a tale of simple folks, a story focused on a man with an obsession for spelunking (exploring caves), the power of sensationalism in the press, and the role of family and faith.
Floyd Collins’ gravestone is emblazoned with the words “The Greatest Cave Explorer Every Known.” It is this man who is the subject of a musical by Tina Landau (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) which bears his name.
The musical tells the tale of the man and the media circus created when the Central Kentucky spelunker explored the hundreds of miles of interconnected underground caverns within Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world.
Collins’ tale takes place in the early 20th century during an era known as the Kentucky Cave Wars, when landowners and explorers competed to exploit the caves for commercial profit from tourists who pay to enter and explore the caverns. On January 30, 1925 Collins happened upon an entrance to what would come to be called “Crystal Cave.” He entered, went down about 55 feet and became stuck by a slide which entrapped his legs.
A newsman who found out about the confinement wrote a piece that became a national story, making Collins a media sensation. The predicament also became the first major news story to be broadcast on radio, the newest media technology. The cave area took on the likes of a county fair and media circus when thousands swarmed to the site.
Unfortunately, Collins couldn’t be dug out and he died of thirst, hunger and hypothermia after 14 days of isolation. His body wasn’t recovered for two months.
The musical, which had a short off-Broadway run in 1996, plays a little loose with the “facts” in order to build the melodramatic elements, allow for song intrusions and add some heroics. The major additions include the character of reporter “Skeets” Miller, a small man, who is able to squeeze through and visit with Floyd, as well as the heroics by Floyd’s brother Homer.
Guettel, who is the grandson of musical theater icon Richard Rodgers [The Sound of Music, Carousel, Oklahoma!] is also the composer of The Light in the Piazza, for which he won two Tony Awards. The complex score is a mélange of bluegrass, Americana and atonal influences. The final song, “How Glory Goes,” has become the musical’s major contribution, having been included in albums by both Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
The story line is filled with dramatic holes. One can only wonder why, with all the media attention, some experts on cave excavation and recover methods didn’t come forward to aid in saving Collins. Oh well, if they had, there would not have been a story for the musical.
The production is performed on a nicely conceived multi-tiered set in the small black box theater. With the audience no more than four rows from the performance, the feeling of being trapped in the cave with Collins is easily created. The illusion is aided by an increasing mist of water-based haze.
The cast, under the deft hand of director and scenic designer Patrick Ciamacco, makes the melodramatic script live. Area newcomer Michael Snider has the vocal and acting chops to pull off the difficult role of Floyd. His renditions of “How Glory Goes,” and “The Call” were compelling. His duets with the equally gifted Michael Knobloch, portraying Floyd’s brother Homer, of “Daybreak” and “The Riddle Song” were performance highlights.
Pat Miller [Skeets Miller] captured the essence of the story with his well-sung and -interpreted, “I Landed Him.” Madeline Krucek [Nellie Collins], Amiee Collier [Miss Jane] and Rob Albrecht [Lee Collins], along with the chorus, performed with vocal excellence.
Ciamacco’s well-researched graphic projections, which show historical pictures of not only the Collins’ family, the cave areas, the surrounding scenery and the circus-like atmosphere, greatly enhance the production. Thanks to musical director Matthew Dolan’s ability to generally control the volume of the well-tuned band in the small space, the important story-telling words of the songs were easily heard.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Floyd Collins is an unusual musical that receives rare productions. It gets a very proficient staging at Blank Canvas and is very well worth seeing due to strong musical performances and a nice interpretation of the melodramatic story.
Floyd Collins runs through Sat 3/25. For tickets go to blankcanvastheatre.com.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]