Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s Floyd Collinspacks a powerful clout in a production by Chicago’s BoHo Theater.
This isn’t a new work. Floyd was performed by Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1999, and the following year by Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theater (now Skylight Music Theater). Although this reviewer didn’t see the Goodman production, the Skylight show proved to be a memorable experience.
In some ways, the Milwaukee show was far superior to BoHo’s version. That’s not to say that the BoHo production doesn’t have its strengths, but it may have soared with a more cohesive vision that carries through to the sets and lighting, etc.< P> First, some background. The musical is based on the true story of a 1920s spelunker who sought personal fame and fortune beneath the Kentucky soil. Ironically, his dream came true, but not in the way he had imagined. He was trapped in a hole and required rescuing.
The audience soon learns this wasn’t a first-time experience for Floyd. Against his father’s stern warnings, he continued to search for a spectacular cave that would draw people from miles around.
Within days, Floyd’s plight becomes the nation’s first media circus. Newspaper reporters swarm the rural hillside where Floyd was trapped. Hollywood filmmakers and TV broadcasters come, too. Soon, vendors set up tents throughout the area, peddling food and souvenirs for the growing number of spectators. Once it becomes clear that Floyd wasn’t going to be rescued anytime soon, his father starts selling tours of the Collins farm. Floyd’s brother agrees to appear in a film staged for the occasion.
What sets this musical apart is its grasp on various aspects of the human condition. There’s poignancy throughout, as the adventurous, optimistic Floyd eventually resigns himself to his fate. Guettel and Landau’s haunting score carries the hint of a Kentucky twang. The show opens with a spectacular opening number, “The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” that introduces many of the important characters in this tale. Floyd soon appears with a few choice songs of his own, including “The Call” and “Time to Go.” Even trapped in the cave, Floyd fools himself by thinking that luck will keep him alive.
What set the Milwaukee production apart was the child-like innocence and wonder expressed by actor Tony Clements as Floyd. In the BoHo’s production, Jim DeSelm as Floyd isn’t quite as likable. However, his singing in certainly up to snuff. The rest of the family includes Jon Harrison as Homer, Floyd’s brother; Russell Alan Rowe as the father, Sarah Bockel as Nellie, Floyd’s sister, and Christa Buck as Miss Jane.
What holds the show back is its oddball set. A series of low, black platforms are scattered with black construction tarps. It is not easy to grasp the difference between what’s happening above ground vs. the activities down below. In the Milwaukee version, Floyd was clearly stuck in the set, pinned by makeshift rocks. His claustrophobic condition is always apparent to the audience. Here, Floyd simply rests against the platforms. At times (perhaps in dream sequences) he even jumps up and runs about the stage. These unwise choices lessen the play’s impact, although the story is still a compelling one.