The 1925 dying of Floyd Collins, a young Kentucky cave explorer, and the media feeding frenzy (the first one that Americans had ever noticed) surrounding it are the subjects of New Line Theatre's first production of the season, a piece of musical theater named, simply, Floyd Collins. The play opened last weekend at the St. Marcus Theatre and will run through Nov. 20.
Floyd Collins, a real person, while exploring a limestone cave for purposes of commercial exploitation, caught his foot in a narrow passage and was further pinned by a rockslide. Although he was found in a short time, the technology of the day was insufficient to free him, so for nearly three weeks the nation watched in titillated horror as he died of exposure. Although one young reporter behaved with courage and gallantry, the national press, the community, the state of Kentucky, commercial interests and even Collins' family disgraced themselves as they cashed in on his terrible fate.
Adam Guettel, the composer and lyricist, and Tina Landau have turned this dark, sad tale into a remarkable piece of musical theater that, although hardly flawless, is consistently interesting both in its music and it the way the story is told. Guettel bases the score on the white folk music of the mid-South, which means that it is strongly Anglo-Celtic with heavy African-American influences. What results is a mix of folk, rock and better Broadway, consistently lyrical and consistently demanding of both singer and hearer. Guettel also plays around with the echo, a device that has fascinated many a stage composer. Guettel takes it further than anyone else has -- indeed, perhaps too far, but one admires his boldness and enjoys the melodiousness even while the nonsense syllables come too heavy, too fast and too long.
New Line Theatre has fielded a strong cast whose vocal abilities are generally matches for Guettel's often demanding music. Troy Schnider, who plays Collins, has a powerful baritone and an excellent ear, more than equal to the solo and ensemble work demanded of him. His duets with Eric Whitman, another strong baritone who plays his brother Homer, involve some tricky close-harmony lines that could flat out, but Schnider and Whitman consistently keep the pitch and the long-line of the music. Another excellent voice belongs to tenor Colin DeVaughan as a young neighbor, Jewell Estes. The St. Marcus is small, with a low ceiling, so no sound system interfered between stage and audience, and what a pleasure it was to hear natural, unamplified voices.
A small instrumental ensemble led by pianist Neal Richardson -- with Adam Kopff on percussion, Bill Bauer on fiddle and Kathy Schottel on guitar and banjo -- served ably as the production's orchestra. Karl Berberich's painted set and Mark Schilling's lighting both added immensely to the power of the evening.