With Adam Guettel’s recent Tony Award win for his score for The Light In the Piazza, it is not surprising that the University of Cincinnati - Conservatory of Music (CCM), one of the best college musical theater programs in the country, would choose to stage the songwriter’s other major book musical, Floyd Collins. The show, now being presented as part of CCM’s Studio Series, is a difficult yet rewarding piece, and this staging shows off the musical’s delights and obstacles.
Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1995, Floyd Collins is based on real life events that occurred in February 1925 in the foothills of Kentucky, and is an unlikely subject for musical adaptation. The show follows the title character as he seeks out a cave that he can turn into a tourist attraction, securing him wealth and fame. However, Floyd soon gets trapped underground, and efforts to free him by his family, friends, and state engineers prove unsuccessful. As news of his predicament spreads throughout the country, a roadside carnival erupts as the press, thousands of onlookers, and entrepreneurs wanting to make a buck off the situation descend upon the site.
Like all of Guettel’s scores, the songs for Floyd Collins are challenging for both the performers and the audience. The music is unpredictable and complex, and is far likelier to be admired than adored. Still, there is an obvious craftsmanship to the work, and Floyd Collins lays the groundwork that would be developed further in Guettel’s material for The Light In the Piazza. The lyrics are often more descriptive and poetic than speech-like, and appropriately capture the Appalachian vernacular of the setting. Musical highlights include “The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” “The Riddle Song.” “Is That Remarkable?” (a humorous take on the misinformation spread by the press, and one of the better staged songs in the show), and “Through The Mountain.”
The unconventional book for Floyd Collins is by original production director Tina Landau. The story jumps sporadically from straightforward plot to fantasy (via dreams and delusions) to commentary. The material is spread so thinly among the many characters that none are developed enough to garner sufficient empathy without additional knowledge of their plight. The story is an interesting one, but deserves and demands more focus.
If history tells us anything, it is that tomorrow’s Broadway stars can be found here at CCM. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what happens to the likes of Billy Tighe (Floyd), Ryan Strand (Homer), Katie Klaus (Nellie), James Lee Glatz (Skeets) and the rest of the cast, but it won’t be surprising if they are known to all theater lovers one day. Mr. Tighe demonstrates first-rate stage presence and handles the large title role with assurance, and the tight harmony and vocal work that he and Mr. Strand display on “The Riddle Song” is impressive. Ms. Klaus and Mr. Glatz are to be commended for their dedication to shaping detailed and believable characters out of what could be far less.
Director R. Terrell Finney (with assistance from Jeremy Kronenberg) does well in staging the piece, with apt pacing, flow, transitions, use of space, and interaction. And, for better or worse, some of the songs seem to be directed to enhance the dramatic effect of the piece, but somewhat at the expense of the musical delivery. What appears to be missing is an adequate level of desperation. Part of the point of the show is that many people involved didn’t seem too terribly worried, but an overwhelming tone of desperation from Floyd and his family is needed and isn’t present to a satisfactory level. The musical direction by Andrew Smithson, who leads a six-piece orchestra, is solid.
Like last year’s production of Side Show, this mounting boasts design elements far greater than those of most musicals in the Studio Series. Scenic Designer Tanner Cosgrove creatively uses many jagged angles and multiple levels made from metal, wood, and fabric to serve as the numerous tunnels and catacombs of the cave, as well as the other settings of the show. The lighting by Ryan Wurtz is likewise praiseworthy and wonderfully captures the mood and unique circumstances of the story, and the costumes (Dean Mogle) and make-up/wigs (Laura Peters) are suitable to the period, setting, and age of the characters also.
Floyd Collins is about as far from a big, glitzy song and dance show as a musical can be. It is an intelligent and challenging piece that is also entertaining and thought-provoking, if not as emotionally moving as it could be. CCM’s production is a solid one in nearly every facet. With the college’s Mainstage musicals tilted toward more traditional choices in Crazy For You and The Pirates of Penzance, it is nice to see CCM successfully tackle a show like Floyd Collins in their Studio Series, as they did several years ago with Guettel’s song-cycle Myths & Hymns.
Floyd Collins played at CCM from October 20 – 22, 2005.