and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Tina Landau, additional
lyrics by Tina Landau, directed by Jared Coseglia
Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge,
Mass., through July 3
Of the 1996 Playwrights Horizon production, New York
magazine critic John Simon wrote that Floyd Collins
was “the original and daring musical of our day, concerned
with saying something in words and music, not merely bringing
in da noise or paying the rent.” Referring to overrated shows
like Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk and Rent,
Simon was, as usual, right. Indeed, the current dean of American
theater critics was rather prophetic regarding the decade
that closed without much ado in the area of musicals about
Seeing Floyd Collins today in the full-blooded production
it’s being given in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn
Theatre, one is struck with its timelessness and relevance
to the ever-receding American dream.
The often dissonant musical is based on the true story of
Floyd Collins, a 38-year-old spelunker who crawled into a
sinkhole that he hoped would lead to a majestic passage that
would link all of the caves in his part of rural Kentucky.
Collins reasoned that such a discovery would lead to fame
and financial success through the tourist attraction that
would follow. Little did he know that mere days after he became
trapped more than 125 feet underground in the winter if 1925,
he would become the attraction as between 10,000 to 30,000
people journeyed to the site of his entrapment. While Collins,
whose foot was caught in a small cave-in, was periodically
visited by a cub reporter, Skeets Miller, a veritable carnival
assembled aboveground for 18 days.
The story was the basis for Billy Wilder’s acerbic film The
Big Carnival, which starred Kirk Douglas as the reporter
who brought fame to himself and Collins. The film, told from
the point of view of the reporter, was a brilliant satire
on greed, the media and unreflective consumerism. Jettisoning
that perspective, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau tell the story
from that of the trapped Collins. It becomes an alternately
rousing and rueful consideration of the literal depths to
which a man will crawl to grasp his moment of fame and his
piece of the American dream. It is a paean to the durability
of the spirit of the dispossessed, the people who envision
more than their workaday lives provide.
What first seizes your imagination at the BTF is Mimi Lien’s
impressionistically impressive set depicting the lean subterranean
passageway that entraps Collins. Abetted by Matthew E. Adelson’s
sly lighting, Lien invites our participation in Collins’ condition
on a nearly visceral level. The music, sound design and acting
complete the effect.
From the outset as Collins sings three songs accompanied by
musical director Linda Dowdell’s versatile keyboard and director
Jared Coseglia’s marvelous echo effects and sound design,
we are swiftly transported to the underground world that Collins
loved. We share in his joy of inhabiting a place never trespassed
on by another human. And in Dalane Mason’s fully committed
performance as Collins, we feel the rapture of a man on the
verge of self-realization. In that trio of songs, Mason exultantly
sings to and with himself, and communicates with an immediacy
and simplicity that are disarming.
When, finally, Collins becomes wedged in the passage so that
even his arms are deprived of movement, the effect is deeply
empathic due to Mason’s earlier free and soaring movements
(some choreographed by the estimable Julian Barnett).
Cosegila has assembled a strong cast to support Mason, and
the excellent designer, Marija Djordjevic, has costumed them
in earth tones with rich veins of mineral deposits; the effect
is that they seem to have sprouted from the ground like outcropping
rocks. Chief among the talented young cast are Rachael Bell,
whose voice rings clear as her surname, and Colby Chambers,
who makes Skeets Miller’s journey both dramatic and heartfelt.
Given Chambers’ resonance, one wonders if there is another
musical to be mined from this story or, perhaps, the Wilder
film. A captivating, if vocally muddied, rendition of “Is
That Remarkable?” sung and danced by three reporters also
prompts this notion.
As well, the plight of the rescuers attains an interest that
almost rivals that of Collins.
Occasionally lyrics are inarticulate, but this is a vast improvement
over the noisily engaging but indecipherable work Coseglia
wrought from last year’s The Who’s Tommy in the Unicorn.
Coseglia has also done admirable work in his staging by spelunking
every stair and cranny of the quirkily engaging theater.
Guettel’s music is not as infectious as that of his grandfather,
Richard Rodgers, and audiences are unlikely to leave Floyd
Collins humming the tunes that are diverse enough to seem
disparate. But there is an earnest concern here about the
human condition that evokes the best of Rodgers.