Do you hear that sound? It’s calling to you from the lone, cold hills of Kentucky. It’s calling for you to follow it down to 1st Stage in Tysons to see the rarely produced musical Floyd Collins. Based on the real life story of the caver by the same name, this backwoods folk-style musical with Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel and Book by Tina Landau makes its return to the Washington DC area for the first time in over a decade. Directed by Nick Olcott with Musical Direction by William Yanesh, this heartfelt tale of family in the dustbowl struggling to get by on hopes, dreams, and disillusions comes crashing to the stage when starry-eyed dreamer Floyd Collins finds himself trapped beneath the dirt in the caves of wonder that he’s uncovered in the Kentucky mountains. A riveting score with a heartbreaking story, this tall-tale musical performance is the stuff of harrowing dreams and beautiful nightmares incarnate.
Landau’s book and Guettel’s score are intriguing if not the most conventional of compositions. Under the skillful Musical Direction of William Yanesh, the complexities of this yodel-laden music are brought forth to a hearty and resplendently fulfilling sound by the talented cast featured in the 1st Stage production. Carrying the energy of a rousing and lively ensemble, the intimate cast brings forth a feel of the Midwest mountains mingled with the dustbowl farmlands perfectly blended into hardened harmonies from just beyond the turn of the 20th century. There is a grit present in all of the group numbers, a dirty soul that preaches a testament to the true earnest lives these characters represent every time they sing.
The scenic outline is deceptively simplistic, appearing at first to be little more than a cavernous wall and an open stage space. Set Designer Jos. B Musumeci Jr. fabricates a rather ingenious cave lining across the back of the staging space, which pulls apart to reveal the intricate ‘tight-squeeze’ path of treachery which Floyd Collins must traverse. Musumeci Jr. pays great attention to the detailing of the top of the cave, creating jagged outlines that when hit by the darkened shadows of Lighting Designer Brian S. Allard’s work, appear to be the skyline of the Kentucky Mountains.
Allard’s illuminating work is astonishing, particularly with the array of colors he infuses into his designs, each alighting upon the walls of the cavern like a rainbow pouring forth from a single lantern. Allard’s lighting work captures inviting moments of passion and emotion as well as setting the tone for a great many of the musical numbers throughout the performance. In addition to creating an enchanting aesthetic for both the world above the cavern and the world deep below the earth’s surface, Allard’s luminescent craftwork creates a third level of play for the characters— a dreamscape— for numbers such as “Riddle Song” and “The Dream.”
The carefully constructed aesthetic of the production is filled out by Costumer Robert Croghan and Sound Designer Kenny Neal. While Neal’s sound effects aren’t necessarily aligned to the period per se, the authenticity that they bring— particularly of the crumbling rock once various instances of collapsing cave start to occur— really hones theatergoers into the atmosphere that the performance creates. The echoed reverb of Floyd Collins’ yodels and cave-calls have an exceptional balance to them as well. Croghan’s costumes are simple but reflect soundly the couture of a dusty country backwoods town with only slight shifts in attire to bring in outsiders from beyond the mountains.
Taking place in 1925 on Bee Doyle’s farm in Barren County, Kentucky means that Dialect Coach Jordan Campbell has his work cut out for him, but the task is met with surefire continuity and consistency across the board when it comes to cultivating the southern drawl of that state for that period in time. There are varying degrees of the strength of accent in Campbell’s work, including a slightly milder inflection on Homer when he first arrives home, which grows thicker as he spends more time with his kinfolk. There is a notable difference in the “outsiders” and their sound as well, including Doctor Hazlett (Russell Silber) who has a distinctly learned sound hailing from the urban city of Chicago and Cliff Roney (Benjamin Lurye) who has that slick-talking patois of Hollywood mastered.
Yanesh, in addition to creating incredibly fortified sounds from the intimate ensemble, really hones in on the style of Guettel’s music, particularly when it shifts from the very twangy mountain yodels heard in numbers like “It Moves” and the heartfelt country ballad sound of “Lucky” to the more vaudeville verve of “Is That Remarkable?” featured at the top of the second act. Director Nick Olcott, alongside Choreographers Michael J. Bobbitt and Rachel Leigh Dolan, takes these dynamic musical switches and uses them as opportunities to frame his conceptual vision of the show— a story told in earnest— around the opportunity for dance. Bobbitt and Dolan turn “Is That Remarkable” into a quirky yet candid little dance routine, but it’s the grandiose parade blocking of “The Dream” that really strikes the heartstrings because of what it represents.
The ensemble is full of robust talent, each character filling out warm harmonies in the company numbers and populating the spoken scenes with their uniquely constructed characters, like Frank Britton as Ed Bishop and Carl Williams as Bee Doyle. Other standout performances among this lot include the clipped and rather severe attitude of H.T. Carmichael (Joshua Simon) and the wimpy but endearing nature of Jewell Estes (Harrison Smith.) Simon, though not a featured soloist, has a strong sound that fills out ensemble numbers with ease, leaving his character work as the cold-hearted developer to carve his niche in the rock of the production. Smith, who strums sweetly on his guitar, opens and closes both renditions of “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” with a bittersweet and unforgettable sound filled with melancholic narrative.
Spry of heart and plucky all round, Skeets Miller (Edward C. Nagel) bustles into Bee Doyle’s farm like a lively twister sweeping across the farmlands. Nagel is the perfect combination of spunky and earnest for the role, lending his emotionally charged voice to “I Landed on Him.” Though Nagel gets this number and some solo features in other fuller ensemble songs, it’s his acting scenes with Floyd Collins that really draw the attention to his work on the stage. Tender moments shared whilst in the cave, both of determination and heartache, unfold between Nagel and the titular character, making for a sensationally memorable performance.
With a deep moody voice and countenance to match, Lee Collins (Scott Sedar) is the stalwart grit of that Kentucky farmers are composed of. Sedar develops easily disagreeable characteristics for his portrayal of Mr. Collins, traits which carry through to his sung verses in “Where a Man Belongs.” His duet with Miss Jane (Jennifer Lyons Pagnard), “Heart an’ Hand” shows a softer side of the character while harmoniously twining her country-light sound with his rich baritone vocal range. Pagnard, who is compassion incarnate when it comes to dealing with her wayward stepchildren, is a strong addition to the cast. Both the aforementioned duet and the delicate duet “Lucky” that she shares with Nellie (Maggie Donnelly) showcase her old-world vocal sound making her the perfect fit for the role.
Donnelly, as the only other female in the production, delivers a blessedly touched rendition of Nellie. Lost in her own brightened bubble of reality there is never a moment’s doubt that her portrayal of Nellie is on loan from the funny farm. Between her meandering eyes and spacy physicality, Donnelly grounds the character’s head in the clouds. Her singing voice shines as brilliant as the treasures Floyd Collins unearths below ground and the song she sings in the second act, “Through the Mountain” reflects as much. Burbling with an almost unnatural love for her brother, Donnelly’s Nellie fits the rough round the edges stereotype of a touched girl from the country who only wants to do what she knows the menfolk can’t.
Dynamic and different, Homer (John Sygar) is a sparking canon when it comes to holding his own against the locals. Though most of his songs occur with Floyd (Evan Casey) a great many of his acting scenes are facing off against Simon’s Carmichael. With a tenacity and determination that could stand down a whole pack of mules, Sygar rails against everyone in opposition to the way in which Floyd ought to be rescued. The banter he develops with Casey is truly fraternal, their connection more than apparent once they’re experienced on stage together. “Daybreak” becomes a duet of calm assuaging tunes from Sygar’s side of the song, while “The Riddle Song” has both fellas at their energetic best, bursting with motivated memory as they recollect their way through a great many childhood experiences of happier times and easier days. Sygar’s rendition of “Git Comfortable” is both fueled with angry and emotionally brutal.
Casey, as the show’s titular character, heeded the call of the mountains to take on the role. His ability to roll through the yodeling and obscene complexity of the score in the first three numbers of the show’s first part are beyond impressive. “The Call”, “It Moves”, and “Time to Go” are a series of three solo numbers where the entire story is carried on Casey’s shoulders as he’s alone on stage and his presence of mind in addition to his astounding voice create a fascinating first portion of the tale. With a glorious voice and incredible sustain at the finale of “How Glory Goes”, Casey proves his worth as the show’s leading man time and again with this and all of his solo songs. Delivering a tear-jerking, heart-bursting performance once he becomes trapped, there is no way audiences will not feel his anguish, his fear, and his hope and hopelessness as the struggle for his life inside the cave crawls through to the show’s conclusion.
An epic opportunity to see this rare sparkling gem of a musical, 1st Stage has something special on their stage this summer with Floyd Collins.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission