Floyd Collins, Though Not For Everyone, Offers Splendid Theatricality

By: Mar. 31, 2014

Floyd Collins/book by Tina Landau/music and lyrics by Adam Guettel/musical direction: David O/directed by Richard Israel/La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts/through April 13

Bold contemporary works do not always make the greatest commercial hits. They strive for theatrical perfection all the while maintaining hardcore truth. But, sometimes the truth is too much to bear and audiences would rather pass than sit through an admonition of it. Such is the case with 1996's Floyd Collins with intriguing book by Tina Landau and riveting music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Based on a true story about a Kentucky cave explorer in 1925 who was trapped 150 ft beneath the earth's surface for two weeks, Floyd Collins offers a chilling, heartbreaking account of one man's eclectic dream and the whole town's unstoppable courage to save him. Now in a freshly staged and copiously rich production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, the material more than receives its due with spot.on direction from Richard Israel and an outstanding cast through April 13.

All of Lee Collins' (Larry Lederman) children were considered off-kilter. His son Floyd (Mark Whitten) was stubborn, living on the edge, exposing himself to danger and obviously making risky choices that went much too far. His daughter Nellie (Kim Huber) recently released from an asylum marched to the tune of her own drummer as well, leaving loyal yet misfit younger son Homer (Jonah Platt) to dream for greener pastures far away from his isolated Kentucky mountain home.

The incident which occurred on January 30, 1925 and lasted until Floyd's death on February 16 brought obvious devastation but other unanticipated changes... to the family and to the community at large. Book writer Tina Landau is faithful to the story and the people, and Adam Guettel's music is wholeheartedly representative of these Kentucky dwellers with its emphasis on bluegrass and Americana styles with a touch of the operatic, suitable for the ultra theatrical high points of the story. What gives the book added fascination for viewers is the intended dramatic switch between the so-called daily life of simplicity and the grossly over exaggerated carnival atmosphere this life becomes after tragedy strikes. First, members of the community were genuinely altruistic, rushing to the rescue, but later greed and selfish motivations took over, as thousands of outsiders showed up to peruse the tragic scene first hand. National and international press also increased in alarmingly high numbers and community folk resorted to selling food and picture souvenirs to satiate the tasteless curiosity seekers. It was a circus. As the scenario dragged on, cave.ins and other setbacks occurred, and rescuers gave up. In the end victimized Floyd Collins, who once was everyone's prime concern, sadly faded away like an undiscovered treasure, a discarded dream.

Local journalist William Burke "Skeets" Miller (Josey Montana McCoy) was small enough physically to slide down a hole to reach Floyd Collins from above - as a rock had fallen and trapped Collins; he was not able to move his leg - and talked with him, interviewing and recording every dream, every thought, every intention, every plan, every feeling and every hope for survival. He was the first on the scene, so the responsibility was his for turning the rescue scenario into a national event, but more importantly, he brought a newfound truth to reporting, changing the face of journalism and raising it to a more superior level. Such are the recorded facts surrounding the incident.

As to this production, the ensemble are astounding. Whitten is amazing as Floyd. His physicality in the cave exploration is wondrous and his emotional connection right on target. The consummate Huber makes the fragile yet determined Nellie miraculously caring... and she sings so beautifully. Platt reaches a higher level of performance in this role with his genuine focus, attention to detail and real sense of his personal predicament. Lederman as the father, Victoria Strong as his wife Miss Jane, Joe Hart as actual rescue leader H.T. Carmichael, Gary Lee Reed as property owner Bee Doyle and the dynamite McCoy as the overly eager Skeets Miller and the rest of the cast including Jay Donnell, Matt Magnusson, Michael Haller, Zach Spound and Michael Byrne are all terrific under Israel's meticulous direction. David O amazes once again as musical director and Rich Rose's scenic design pulls us right in, on top of the action. The total rearrangement of the theatre to put the audience on the big stage in three-quarter bleachers, reducing the size of the actual stage works perfectly, in respect to making the whole experience intimate and engrossing. Israel's staging is economic and cautious for the most part, but the entertaining carnival numbers at the opening of Act II are abundantly and beautifully choreographed.

Floyd Collins is not for everyone. Some people object to viewing tragic circumstances as entertainment...and to hearing speeches about the acceptance of approaching death, as in Floyd's final monologue/song. So, be warned: it's not for the squeamish! However, the full dramatic impact of the piece and La Mirada's fine rendering will most likely pull you in and keep you absorbed.