In a cab on the way to the York Theatre to see Floyd Collins, I’m asked by the driver where I work, and I tell him. “Oh, the newspaper,” he says, as we head down Commercial Drive. “So where’s that plane?”
If anyone at The Globe and Mail has an inkling as to the whereabouts of Flight MH370, it’s not the theatre critic. But, if you’re enthralled by true-life tales of hope and terror that transform into media frenzies, I do know where you can find one with an actual resolution – that would be Patrick Street Productions’ Vancouver premiere of Floyd Collins.
Composer-lyricist Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical concerns a real-life Kentuckian cave explorer who got his leg stuck under a rock underground in 1925. The search for Collins – played on his back for most of the night, but in a life-affirming performance nevertheless, by Daren Herbert – was no less an international sensation than the current search for MH370.
Skeets Miller (an uneven Andrew Wade), the local cub reporter sent to cover the story, at first marvels as his dispatches from the scene are syndicated in 1,200 newspapers. But then he becomes worried about what exactly the media hath wrought.
The subject and the journalist’s relationship is perhaps the most important one in Guettel’s musical – but, aside from one entertaining number with a trio of newspapermen, the musical skirts the satirical territory of Kander and Ebb, as Skeets puts down his pencil and picks up a shovel.
The other two main emotional hooks are Floyd’s connections with his status-seeking brother Homer (Michael Torontow), who can see him underground but can’t quite reach him, and his psychiatric-patient sister Nellie (Republic of Doyle’s Krystin Pellerin), who remains above ground but nevertheless seems to have a direct line to him. (Guettel, who also composed the more polished The Light in the Piazza, has a propensity for romanticizing women with mental illnesses.)
Though it lasted only 25 performances in its initial outing, Floyd Collins earned an outsized amount of attention upon its off-Broadway debut. This may have been because it came at a low moment for American musical theatre, when critics were eager to praise potential – especially when it came from someone with such a strong pedigree. (Earlier this year, Patrick Street Productions produced an evening of songs by Guettel’s grandfather, Richard Rodgers, and his Oklahoma! partner Oscar Hammerstein II.)
The Shaw Festival’s had a notable success with their production of the musical in 2004, but the material’s weaknesses are all too visible in director Peter Jorgensen’s production here (which will travel to Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont. next month).
The main one is that Guettel and book writer Tina Landau can’t quite make up their minds what the show is about – and that leaks into Guettel’s score, which seems eclectic less by design than by indecisiveness. Certain songs are simple and inspired by bluegrass and country, while others are less melodic and more neurotic – and seem utterly out of place coming out of the mouths of Kentucky characters who, otherwise, speak in folksy y’alls and thars.
The musical invention, however, serves the story well when Guettel plays with the possibilities of the underground cave’s echoes. As Floyd, Herbert is a wonderful yodeller – and Bradley Danyluk’s sound design helps take his howls and send them reverberating around the York Theatre – a charming 365-seater, recently rescued from demolition and given a $14.8-million makeover, and reopened just in December.
Jorgensen’s choreography takes a cue from the echoing as well – and in those numbers featuring Floyd and his siblings, we see similar movements ripple through them even though they’re apart. (Herbert, Torontow and Pellerin are all strong in a cast not always entirely up to the challenging score.)
In other areas, Jorgensen’s staging is less illuminating – clumsy even, as he fails to compellingly conjure the carnivalesque atmosphere that breaks out in the second half. Barbara Clayden’s costumes don’t help – all country clichés or just unwieldy. Pellerin, in particular, is saddled with a curiously out-of-period outfit, a dress that looks like a cross between a Snuggie and a sack, plus a hat tilted back over an 1980s ’do that summons memories of Molly Ringwald.
When Floyd Collins works, however, it works – and Jorgensen fills the York Theatre for the finale, as Herbert sells the hell out of a song titled How Glory Goes. But what echoes afterward is a sense of how the magnification of stories like his by the media (and that includes this musical itself) often creates a noise that drowns the tragedy itself.
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