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BWW Reviews: BoHo's FLOYD COLLINS - An Impressive Blend of Stagecraft and Musicianship

BWW Reviews: BoHo’s FLOYD COLLINS - An Impressive Blend of Stagecraft and Musicianship

"Floyd Collins," that bold musical that challenges actors, directors, musicians, sound designers and audience members alike, is a bold undertaking for any theater company. It requires real actors, who can create something out of almost nothing they've experienced before, and can really learn and interpret complex music. It takes musicians who can play and sing a strange combination of bluegrass, Broadway, folk and Americana, as if it were Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday In The Park With George" written by Mark O'Connor, or someone trying to be Bill Monroe, Audra McDonald and Pierre Boulez all at the same time. As one of the works which brought the American musical theater into the contemporary era, it takes imagination and hard work, from everybody in the room.

And Chicago's non-Equity Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (or "BoHo Theatre," as it is known to insiders and diehard fans) has undertaken Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's 1996 off-Broadway masterpiece (or close to it) and put it on at Theater Wit on West Belmont Avenue for the next month (through July 25, 2012). If you have imagination enough to meet the company halfway, somewhere between the hardscrabble Kentucky soil and the cave beneath it, where the real Floyd Collins met his doom in 1925, you will come away with a musical and theatrical experience you are unlikely to repeat anytime soon, anywhere else.

In theatricalizing the story of America's first rural media circus, the two-week ordeal surrounding Collins, the rock that trapped him 55 feet below ground, his family and friends, reporters and engineers and claustrophobia and starvation, the Steppenwolf ensemble member Landau and the young Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers) hit upon a theatrical landscape of the mind, where the only way to interpret the story involves sounds, light, costumes and arduous physical tasks for the actors (climbing and crawling, feeling cold or wet, feeling anxious or despairing, all the while forcing them to sing polytonal, multi-rhythmic music punctuated by yelps, yodels and fiddles). These are far more important aspects of any production of this show than realistic sets, continuity of time or actual rocks. One could say that BoHo's "Floyd Collins," directed by artistic director Peter Marston Sullivan, is the traditional way that this non-traditional piece is done. (You gonna build a real cave? Is it going to come and go that often? Really?)

Within, upon and beneath a unit set of platforms covered in crinkly muslin (sets and lights by Diane D. Fairchild), Sullivan's actors (fourteen hearty souls in all) enter and exit the cave, scooting along the real set and dodging imaginary obstacles all the while, carrying some realistic-looking props by Casey Schillo like lanterns, axes, ropes--you name it--trying, with increasing intensity, to rescue the trapped young man. And they're wearing great period earth tones and denim by Kristen Ahern (though I wished more of the men wore overcoats).

BWW Reviews: BoHo’s FLOYD COLLINS - An Impressive Blend of Stagecraft and MusicianshipFloyd is played here by Jim DeSelm, in a performance at the end of a remarkable year for this actor, as full and strenuous and fragile and likeable a performance as you could possibly imagine. He's onstage for the entire show. And he's handsome, too (and he sings like a dream!). A star is born, methinks. As Skeets Miller, the skinny reporter who is the only man small enough to reach Floyd until a small avalanche cuts off all access to him, Greg Foster is smart, empathetic, regretful, and his soul is gradually burned by the flames of frenzy he has helped to fan. And as Floyd's younger brother, Homer, Jon Harrison has a beautiful voice, and the dynamism and charisma to match.

The only two ladies in the cast, Christa Buck as Floyd's step-mother and especially Sarah Bockel as his sister, Nellie, sing with lovely lyricism and frontier fragility, steel magnolias fighting to stay in bloom amid harsh realities. Steve O'Connell, as H. T. Carmichael, the man in charge of the failed rescue operation, does a good job with the meanness of his character, finally showing some humanity in later scenes.  As Floyd's father, Lee, Russell Alan Rowe doesn't quite show what is lurking beneath the man's banal surface, though when it finally comes bubbling out it is sufficient enough. Evan Tyrone Martin makes a great deal out of the role of Ed Bishop, and the trio of reporters, Benjamin Kirkberger, Tom McGunn and Michael Potsic, sings very well and pleased the opening night crowd. Nathan Carroll, Patrick Rooney and David Tibble round out the hard-working, great-sounding cast.

DeSelm, at the helm of the show, both in name and in stage time, gets to sing the now-legendary song "How Glory Goes" at the end of the show, one of those instances where those who know it wonder, "How is this show going to sustain my interest until we get to the end?" Think "Rose's Turn," without the bumps and grinds, or "Being Alive" without the birthday cake. However, he does an even more impressive job with this first song, "The Call," surely the single most revolutionary song in musical theater since "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'." And the show, of course, does indeed hold our interest between these two high points. DeSelm's duet with Harrison's Homer, "The Riddle Song," ends the first act with a flourish and a smile. And Bockel delivers Nellie's "Through The Mountain" with about four different musical voices, it seems, a remarkable tour de force for this daring actress and singer.

BWW Reviews: BoHo’s FLOYD COLLINS - An Impressive Blend of Stagecraft and MusicianshipAnd speaking of tour de force, the sound design of Christopher Kriz is remarkable, with echoes (of voices and of song), drips, winds, you name it, in addition to the actors and the orchestra. And that orchestra! With musical direction by Alan Buckowiecki  and with conductor and keyboardist Allison Hendrix, the four-person band sounded like a dozen players, rocking out the jagged edges and moonshine smoothness of Guettel's sui generis score like it was a bunch of Cohan or Sousa marches, so together and appealing and apparently easy (not!). It's a remarkable band, backing a bunch of smart and talented singer-actors having the meatiest experience of their American musical theater lives.

Quibbles aside, I was blown away by the integrity, commitment and unity of this company of performers, and by the artistic and design team whose vision they are inhabiting so fully. If the rescue doesn't seem urgent enough in the early going, if the voices are not Grand Ole Opry-worthy, if the journeys of the mind could use (but don't require) a few pricey bells and whistles to help with clarity (projections, tons more light or sound cues, real live backhoes or the like), none of that matters to the BoHo audience.

This production of this most theatrical of musical plays, this most musical of theatrical plays, is authentically in the moment from first to last, and lands with a stylistic authority and musical assuredness that would make any fan of Chicago's non-Equity scene proud. For a few weeks, our non-Eq community is offering both of Adam Guettel's major scores for the theater ("The Light In The Piazza" at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre has been packing them in since March), and with a talent pool like the one we are swimming with, our musical Theater Productions will be well-stocked for decades, apparently!

You owe it to yourself to see this "Floyd Collins." See it for Jim DeSelm's gutsy and winning title performance, for the young actors surrounding him showing the world what they can do, and for the trip into your own mind that the show will show you. Your ear will be tickled, and your soul will ache. Thank you, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble!

FLOYD COLLINS, by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, is presented by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, in Chicago, June 15-July 15, 2012. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 1:30 pm. For tickets ($22-$28) or further information, call the Theater Wit box office at 773-975-8150 or visit

PHOTO CREDIT: All photographs courtesy of Peter Coombs and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

PHOTOS: (from top) Jim DeSelm; Sarah Bockel and Jim DeSelm; Jon Harrison and Jim DeSelm

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