Floyd Collins will never be a blockbuster success offering ‘caviar to the general’, but for the quality of the music and the seriousness of the themes it addresses it is hard to match. It is an object lesson of how deep musical theatre can dig when its resources are fully deployed in the right directions. The musical deserves five stars on its merits, but twice over for the strength of the production, which makes all the correct interpretative decisions, finding tragedy and comedy in all the expected – and some unexpected – places. This show will not be around again for a while, so do catch it while you can.
Floyd Collins is on the face of it an unlikely subject for a musical. It is based on a historical incident in Kentucky in 1925 when a veteran cave explorer discovered a huge new cavern close to one that his family already owned and hoped to develop commercially. Unfortunately he got stuck in a narrow passage by a rock fall some 150 feet below ground and died eventually after several attempts to reach him failed. A media circus developed above ground, the first perhaps of its kind, in which journalists, film-makers and tourists had a voyeuristic field-day, the essence of which was memorably captured by Billy Wilder and Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951).
There are three obvious problems for a musical treatment: the scenario of a man stuck in a cave places clear limitations on what can be done dramatically given that much of the action must be static, and we already know the outcome of the plot. Also the parallel theme of how tragedy is exploited and commercialized by the media is one that has already received distinguished and relevant treatment, not just in general but in very specific relation to this story.
Tina Landau’s book seeks to overcome these hurdles by shifting the focus to Floyd himself and to his family. We learn a lot more about his brother Homer and his sister Nellie in particular, and Floyd becomes a symbol for a detailed exploration of American pioneer mythology, paying tribute both to its idealism, religiosity and strong family values, and its grubbier, more grasping aspirations as well.
A final important change is to focus the journalistic conundrums around the historical character of ‘Skeets’ Miller, who both genuinely wants to save Floyd and make the most of the opportunities for unique career-making copy.
Since this musical’s first outing in the 1990s, debate has flowed to and fro as to how successful the book and lyrics are, but there is general consensus over the quality of Adam Guettel’s score, which is a true jewel, that yields new joys on repeated hearing. Guettel is not a prolific composer, and understandably so, when you consider that he carries the burden of close family relationship to both Richard and Mary Rogers; but his work here never disappoints in both its surface charm and layered complexity.
From the opening ballad onwards into a long sequence of evocative solos and complex ensembles, the composer creates a unique sound world with a special blend of sonorities from the eight-piece band, where – for once – strings and keyboard dominate rather than woodwind and brass. As you would expect, there is lot of local ‘blue grass’ material, but this is opened up with the kind of wide-spaced melodies and blockish harmony that you find in Aaron Copland and other American composers traditionally thought of ‘classical’.
In fact it is a kaleidoscope of the best of the last century of American music, with echoes of Gershwin and Sondheim and many other distinguished names. However, as played here with grace and empathy under Tom Brady’s direction, it never comes over as pastiche, but as a reinvented, integrated whole.
The only caveat that occurs is in setting some of the lyrics – occasionally there are just too many words fighting against the soaring flight of the melodies, and in fact the most searing moments are when words are more or less abandoned altogether – for example in the ‘echo’ song, a three-part canon, that greets Floyd’s discovery of the cavern, or in several of the songs sung by Nellie, especially when the tone is floated as ethereally as it is by Rebecca Trehearn, fresh from her success in Showboat.
Wilton’s, with its shabby-chic vaulted features, is an ideal imaginative setting for a cave drama, and the simple, three-level scaffolding set is just right for a musical essentially given in a fixed location. Strangely no one is credited for this design in the programme.
Sound and lighting designers Tony Gayle and Rick Fisher do great work in reinforcing the sepulchral gloom and complex concerted vocal overlays. Lee Newby has ensured detailed authenticity in the costume department and director Jonathan Butterell ensures his company makes full use of the walkways and levels at Wilton’s, and his experienced hand is clearly visible in the set-piece numbers that follow thick on one another in the second act, especially the climactic How Glory Goes, which sets up a false apotheosis spectacularly.
The greatest recommendation of this production is its cast, which is without weakness in both the vocal and acting departments. This material is not easy to bring off effectively: the music is sophisticated but requires a great simplicity and open-heartedness in delivery once the technical challenges are overcome. The performers gave their all on press night in a performance that rightly garnered a standing ovation from the audience.
Ashley Robinson as Floyd has to run the gamut of emotions and give us the range of his personality from what is essentially a fixed position, as if he were crucified centre-stage. His is a searing but also funny, even cheeky performance that conveys the pain and despair and false hopes and exhilaration of apparent rescue quite brilliantly.
Equally impressive is Samuel Thomas, whose anguished depiction of brotherly devotion is imagined from within with superb intensity: his duet with Robinson at the close of Act One was in some ways the most affecting single moment of the evening.
Trehearn is superb throughout as the mentally ill sister devoted to Floyd, always slightly at one remove from events, and equally fine is Daniel Booroff, as the reporter with a conscience. He was always acting off the speech with rare attention to detail and conveyed the dilemmas of his character with a quiet tenderness that commanded attention.
This will never be a blockbuster success offering ‘caviar to the general’, but for the quality of the music and the seriousness of the themes it addresses it is hard to match. It is an object lesson of how deep musical theatre can dig when its resources are fully deployed in the right directions. The musical deserves five stars on its merits, but twice over for the strength of the production, which makes all the correct interpretative decisions, finding tragedy and comedy in all the expected – and some unexpected – places. This show will not be around again for a while, so do catch it while you can.