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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Floyd Collins is an Astonishing Musical

Theatre Works is presenting the Bay Area Premier of the astonishing musical Floyd Collins with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and a book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau. This winner of the 1996 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Off Broadway play is a must see for musical theater aficionados. Adam Guettel must be hailed as one of the new brilliant composers as he blends a haunting tapestry of bluegrass, folk, jazz and country melodies in this production. Mr Guettel will be one of the most influential writers of music for future composers.

Floyd Collins first opened in Philadelphia in 1994 and then moved to the Playwrights Horizon in New York the following year, gaining a cult following. This is a unique musical in every sense. I grew up in southern Ohio with the bluegrass sound and I was only about 200 miles from the cave where Floyd died. I know this style of music very well. Guettel’s bluegrass sound has a strong classical influence and some of the lyrics and sounds seem very influenced by Stephen Sondheim. The music blends with the true story of the Kentucky cave discoverer who dreamt of finding glory and fortune.

The musical takes place in late January of 1925 in Barren County, Kentucky, where a young man named Floyd Collins is exploring caves with the hope of finding a cave that could be turned into a tourist attraction. A fallen rock traps him 150 feet underground and this sets off a human drama that reaches momentous proportions. First the family tries to free him with his brother, Homer, leading the effort. Then neighbors come along with Louisville Courier reporter Skeets Miller in an attempt to pry Floyd loose from the cave. Finally mining crews come and then the media shows up and it becomes a "Big Carnival" which attracts nationwide attention. The slim reporter Skeets is the only person able to climb down to Floyd and this effort results in a series of exclusive interviews that are syndicated to newspapers across the country. We became the only ones to witness not only Floyd’s struggle for survival down below, but the struggle of rural natives to maintain their integrity amid the onslaught of the media, scam artists and big city bureaucrats above.

My personal interest in the musical, besides being raise near the area, is that I was privileged to work with Billy Wilder in the 1951 film Ace in the Hole, also known as The Big Carnival, inspired by the Floyd Collins story.

The cast of Floyd Collins is top drawer and there are dazzling performances by all of the leading players. Matt D. Farnsworth is brilliantly real as Floyd. He has a strong voice and passionate expressions that go from adventurousness to joy to pain; he gives a heartrending performance. Francis Jue, a favorite of TheatreWorks audiences, plays the Louisville reporter Skeets. He has a clear and fine voice and he is marvelous in the role. Mr Jue is a great asset to this production. Patrick Flick plays the daring brother of Floyd and he had a amazing voice. He particularly stands out in the duet “The Riddle Song,” which ends the first act, and in his solo “Get Comfortable”.

The satiric “Is That Remarkable?” is delightful as the show’s only real song and dance number. It shows the avaricious fascination that the media had for this ongoing tragedy and it brings to mind how this greed is still happening today. Jonathan Rhys Williams sings the second most beautiful song of the production, the lovely folk song “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” and the cast joins in on the reprise. Lovely chorus work.

The female roles are also admirable. Elizabeth Snyder plays the slightly “teched” sister Nellie. Diana Torres Koss plays Miss Jane and they both shine in the song “Lucky” Diana is wonderful in the duet with Patrick, “Heart and Hand”. The rest of the cast are superb in their roles; congratulations to dialect coach Kimily Conkle for teaching this company the authentic Kentucky accent.

Direction by Robert Kelley is on the mark, crisp and to the point. The set is perfect with Pamila Gray’s lights searching the layered, earth-toned platforms and odd angle rods of Andrea Bechert’s revolving set. There are also dim, dusty shafts of sunlight coming though. An amazing set on the right side of the stage.

The small orchestra iss perfect for this venue. The interesting thing about this orchestra is that it did not sound like the Off Broadway cast recording. The recording sounds more twangy and sharp, like authentic bluegrass, while this orchestra has a softer sound.

As far as I am concerned, Adam Guettel joins the list of great new composers like LaChiusa, Finn, Pen and Larson and we should hear a lot more from this young composer in the future.

Floyd Collins runs through May 6th at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are $20 - $38. Call 650- 903- 6000 for tickets or visit www.theatreworks.org. The marks the last show of the current season. The new 2001-02 season opens on June 20 with the pre-Broadway run Summer of' 42.



Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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