BWW Review: FLOYD COLLINS Marks Moonbox Anniversary
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel, Book and Additional Lyrics by Tina Landau, Directed by Allison Choat, Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, Choreography by Rachel Bertone, Set Design by Jacob Sherburne, Sound Design by Dan Costello, Lighting Design by Jeffrey Salzberg, Costume Design by Fabian Aguilar; Stage Manager, Alexandra Jameson
CAST (in order of appearance): Jacob Sherburne, Teresa Winner Blume, Mark Linehan, Anne Colpitts, Phil Thompson, Phil Tayler, Phillip Isaac Berman, Rich Sherburne, Matthew Zahnzinger, Robert D. Murphy, Dave Carney, Bob De Vivo, Alex Grover
Performances through April 14 by Moonbox Productions at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Moonbox Productions is one of the new kids on the Boston theatre scene and they are making a big splash to mark their one year anniversary with a moving production of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. Giving the Easter Sunday press opening extra cachet, the Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist was in the house for moral support and a post-show talk-back with the audience. It was a coup for Moonbox and a genuine treat for those in attendance to hear Guettel's remarks about the origin and development of the show, as well as his elucidation of the musical genres and instrumentation he incorporated into the score.
Floyd Collins is the musical adaptation of the true story of a local caver who became trapped in a narrow crawlway while trying to discover a new entrance to a system of underground caves in Kentucky on January 30, 1925. Hoping to find fame and fortune by exploring Sand Cave, Collins instead became hopelessly stuck fifty five feet below the surface and approximately 150 feet from the entrance when he accidentally knocked over his lamp and, in the darkness, dislodged a rock from the ceiling which pinned his left leg. Although he was found by friends the next day, rescue efforts were unsuccessful after the cave passage collapsed and Collins died, probably three or four days before his body was reached in mid-February.
There is sufficient theatricality inherent in the caver's tale, but news reports of his plight turnEd Collins into a media sensation and created a carnival atmosphere in the small Appalachian town. Guettel and book writer Tina Landau mined this side of the story to integrate an exposé of media exploitation into their depiction, linking our experiences in a celebrity-obsessed, paparazzi-infused era to the news-gathering frenzy of the roaring twenties.The Collins family had only their faith to sustain them in this crisis; they were ill-equipped to withstand the extreme pressure from publicity hounds and the crowds of tourists drawn to the site.
Director Allison Choat set the bar high for authenticity in this production by choosing to spend a day in cave exploration prior to rehearsals in order to appreciate what it feels like to crawl through deep, narrow spaces. Her understanding informs the atmosphere of the play as the actors duck their heads, crouch, and wriggle on their bellies to suggest that they are in cramped quarters even when the reality of the set affords them plenty of clearance. Choat, in collaboration with Set Designer Jacob Sherburne, Lighting Designer Jeffrey Salzberg, and Sound Designer Dan Costello, creates a virtual reality of dim, timber-creaking confinement that feels numbingly claustrophobic even as our brains are aware that the crawling actors in fact could just stand up. To their credit, Phil Tayler (Floyd), Mark Linehan (Floyd's brother Homer Collins), and Matthew Zahnzinger (Skeets Miller) convincingly grunt and grimace while lying prone and inching forward on their elbows military-style.
The aforementioned trio plays the most compelling characters in the story and each gives a heartfelt performance. Tayler spends long stretches immobilized on a small ledge of the rock-like tiered set, but has no problem conveying the pain and frustration that Floyd feels. He is a strong singer and expresses a range of feelings from exuberance to despair in his songs that include reminiscing with his brother, imagining the kind of girl he'll meet when he gets out, and dreaming about a hero's welcome that he'll never get to enjoy. Homer is the little brother who looks up to Floyd and wants to be the one to rescue him. Linehan gets that right, as well as showing the gravity of the situation and the pressure he feels. His rich baritone voice serves Guettel's soaring music well.
Skeets Miller appears on the scene as a newsman sent to cover the story, but winds up being key to the rescue efforts as he is small enough to slide in alongside Floyd. Through the course of interviewing him, the men become friends and Skeets broadcasts Floyd's story to the world. Zahnzinger appears to grow in stature and his face reflects the seriousness of his mission as the arc of his character takes on greater import. When he arrives, Miller is an outsider with no idea about what he is to experience, but the event changes him and Zahnzinger nails his transformation.
The close knit ensemble represents the townsfolk who are suspicious of outsiders descending upon them. Jacob Sherburne, Phillip Isaac Berman, and Rick Sherburne all give solid performances and Jacob delivers a haunting rendition of the title ballad. Teresa Winner Blume can break your heart as Floyd's sister Nellie as she misses him the most, but believes his luck will save him. Father Lee (Phil Thompson) and stepmother Miss Jane (Anne Colpitts) wring their hands and each handles the situation in their own way. Both have lovely voices and they share a sweet duet in the first act. Robert D. Murphy is unsympathetic as the take charge engineer H. T. Carmichael who directs the rescue operation, and Dave Carney, Bob De Vivo, and Alex Grover round out the company in multiple roles.
In addition to moving the story, Guettel's complex, eclectic music - a combination of bluegrass, Americana, and more lush styles - establishes a strong sense of place in Floyd Collins. Augmenting that sense are the dialects employed by the cast and the costumes by Fabian Aguilar. The clothing of the locals is soiled and appears well-worn. Homer and Skeets wear suits appropriate to the era when we first meet them, and a trio of reporters looks the part in trench coats and fedoras, transporting us to the time, as well as the place. Music Director Dan Rodriguez on piano and his seven fellow musicians (featuring harmonica, guitar, and banjo with the requisite strings and percussion) are situated at the rear of the set and their nearness increases the feeling of intimacy.
Moonbox Productions has a dual mission: to present high quality theater with local artists and to promote the work of local non-profit organizations. For Floyd Collins, the non-profit partner is Crittenton Women's Union, dedicated to helping low-income women overcome poverty and achieve economic independence. To serve its social mission, a portion of ticket sales will be donated to CWU. As to its artistic mission, notwithstanding the unfortunate ending suffered by the protagonist, I'd say mission accomplished with Floyd Collins.
Photo credit: Sharman Altshuler (Phil Tayler as Floyd Collins)