Also see Sharon's review of Vagabond Tales
At first blush, it’s hard to believe Floyd Collins is only now getting its Los Angeles premiere. The musical about a man stuck in an underground cave in backwoods Kentucky and the media circus surrounding the attempts to rescue him seems a good fit for Los Angeles. After all, we are a city that knows our media circuses. Then again, it’s also easy to understand why nobody has attempted this difficult musical. A show where the protagonist spends the bulk of the piece trapped in a cave presents certain staging challenges. It’s also a challenge for the actor who plays Floyd, who is given an opening number more than ten minutes long which requires him to sing while crawling through caves, and singing a yodel-like caver’s call. Adam Guettel’s folk-inspired score isn’t a cakewalk for anyone, with twangs and fast-talking bluegrass scat that isn’t frequently heard in musical theatre. Any small-theatre production of Floyd Collins would, by its very nature, have to be described as ambitious.
How wonderful, then, that West Coast Ensemble’s production is not just ambitious, but confident. Director Richard Israel knows exactly what he’s doing and puts forth a production that never once questions its ability to sell this musical. From the opening Ballad of Floyd Collins, the company, supported by a small but sufficient off-stage band, beautifully and fearlessly delivers Guettel’s harmonies, smoothly setting up the story. More than that, Israel deftly stages the musical to accent its themes of fame, family and the quest for happiness.
Evan A. Bartoletti neatly solves the problem of the cave set by covering the walls of the stage (and some of the house walls as well) with wooden sticks or posts. While the sticks on stage are solid and vertical, those reaching out toward the audience are more angled and broken, suggesting the collapse of supports holding up the cave walls. But when the play begins, the wooden sticks reaching out into the house are used in an unexpected way, and it is clear that the wood isn’t a set of supports for the cave, but the cave itself. Depending on how lighting designer Lisa D. Katz makes light hit the wood, it can be a large open cave or an oppressive and confining tunnel.
Bryce Ryness, as Floyd, climbs all over the set, wriggling through tight cave openings and seamlessly singing with his own echo (courtesy of sound effects designer Cricket S. Myers) while investigating the cave system. Ryness plays Floyd as a loveable good-natured dope, with emphasis on the “dope.” While, personally, I would have preferred a little less gleeful bouncing when Floyd was happy, it’s a minor quibble. Ryness has a strong, rich voice which outweighs any minor problems with characterization. (Besides, happiness is a largely transient state for Floyd, and Ryness is much better with Floyd’s despair and, sometimes, terror.) Of somewhat greater concern is that Ryness seemed to run out of steam by Floyd’s final number, “How Glory Goes.” He approaches the number with a relatively light touch, as though the ordeal of so powerfully making it through the rest of the play is a bit too much for him.
Dana Reynolds plays Nellie, Floyd’s sister who was recently released from a mental asylum. Reynolds’ Nellie is definitely “touched”; even when she just stands on stage, there’s something a little off-center about her. And director Israel frequently has Nellie just stand on stage, facing the action surrounding Floyd - watching, but not seeing, what happens with her brother. It’s a wonderful way of supporting Tina Landau’s book, which suggests some level of inexplicable connection between the siblings. Reynolds also has a beautiful voice, and her solid soprano hits Nellie’s high notes with surprising strength.
Floyd’s brother Homer is played by Stef Tovar, who initially seems to have too much of a pop sensibility in his voice to properly carry off the role. But he and Ryness sing well together, and Tovar brings many layers to his characterization of the brother who was trying to become citified and escape the poor rural life when his brother’s accident brought him running back into his past.
The rest of the company also scores - from David Kaufman, as the young, enthusiastic reporter who becomes a character in his own story, to Jerry Kernion as the official who intends to save Floyd but alienates the entire town in the process. The one weak link is Andrea Covell as Floyd’s stepmother, Miss Jane. And even here, Covell establishes Miss Jane’s role as protector and has no trouble singing Guettel’s score. Her only problem is that her voice lacks a richness present in the rest of the company, and their strength makes her appear somewhat outclassed.
While West Coast Ensemble’s Floyd Collins isn’t perfect, it’s amazingly close. If you don’t love this production, you just don’t like this musical.
Floyd Collins runs weekends at West Coast Ensemble through April 3, 2005. For reservations, call (323) 525-0022 or see www.wcensemble.org.
West Coast Ensemble - under the artistic direction of Les Hanson - presents Floyd Collins. Book by Tina Landau; Music & Lyrics by Adam Guettel; Additional Lyrics by Tina Landau. Director Richard Israel; Assistant Director Suzanne Doss; Producers for WCE M. Carla Barnett & Claudia Jaffee; Music Director Johanna Kent; Choreographer Cate Caplin; Stage Manager Veronica Stell; Set Design Evan A. Bartoletti; Lighting Design Lisa D. Katz; Costume Design Alayna Marie Miller; Sound Design Cricket Meyers; Marketing Director David Elzer/DEMAND PR.
Photo by Claudia Jaffee