“Floyd Collins”: heaps of social commentary on musical stage

LOS ANGELES – As a reasonably attentive theatergoer, I eagerly awaited composer/lyricist Adam Guettel’s latest work, having deeply appreciated his six Tony Awards-winning quasi-opera Light in the Piazza. The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, in a suburb of Los Angeles, announced his Floyd Collins (with book writer Tina Landau, who also supplied additional lyrics), for a short production run (March 29-April 13), and I hurried to see it.

I was surprised to learn that this work actually dates back to the mid-1990s. It won Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Obie Awards in 1996, and has been staged in a number of cities, including L.A. It had escaped my attention, although a cast recording does exist on Nonesuch Records.

Floyd Collins is based on historical events – like such other musicals as Parade, The Scottsboro Boys, Harmony, and Assassins, to mention a few. Born in 1887, Collins was an explorer in an area of hundreds of miles of interconnected caves, including Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. One day in late January 1925, while searching out a new entrance to the underground, he fell into a narrow crawlway, got trapped there, and ultimately died of starvation and exposure on Friday, February 13.

What happened during those two weeks becomes, in the musical, a metaphor for all that is positive, and much that is terribly amiss in America. Why was Collins exploring caves in the first place? For the adventure, for the contribution to our knowledge of natural history, yes; but also because, as a wannabe entrepreneur, he dreamed ecstatically of opening a theme park and making a fortune off of tourists.

Why did a minor Louisville Courier-Journal writer named William Burke “Skeets” Miller go to Cave City, Kentucky, to report the story? Well, it was a good human-interest item, but his daily updates got syndicated in 1,200 newspapers around the country, and ultimately earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Floyd Collins became a folk hero, the whole country riveted on his travails, the new medium of radio also contributing to the frenzy.

On the ground above Collins, the whole family gets into the act. Brother Homer, passionately devoted to saving Floyd’s life, is gradually seduced by Hollywood for his matinee idol good looks. His dad, a hardscrabble farmer with a naïve evangelical faith, is reduced to hawking balloons and cheap souvenirs of his son (photos a dollar apiece).

H. T. Carmichael, owner of Kentucky Rock and Asphalt, self-importantly contributes his expertise to the rescue, knowing that it will only boost business. He’s an obvious precursor of those profit-hungry corporations that carve up pine-covered mountaintops to remove the precious coal below.

The whole carnival of hucksterism surrounding the effort recapitulates in backwater Kentucky the Roaring Twenties model of success, fame, monetization, and wealth, a small but shining example of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” theory of disaster capitalism. Significantly, it’s the women in this story, sister Nellie and Miss Jane (Floyd’s stepmother), who come off relatively pure.

Guettel’s score is a sophisticated mash-up of minimalism and country hollers and bluegrass. Particularly powerful are the echo effects that resound throughout: Floyd Collins refers to the caves as “one giant system” underneath the Earth’s surface that clearly echoes the intricately interwoven social structure above, while the unlucky spelunker hovers midway between, slowly losing breath and hope.

For such a small-scale production, La Mirada recruited a highly experienced cast capable of straightforward balladry, yodeling, vaudeville routine, extended vocal monologues approaching operatic dimensions, and crisp ensemble precision. Standouts are Mark Whitten as Floyd Collins, Victoria Strong as Miss Jane, Kim Huber as Nellie Collins, Jonah Platt as Homer Collins, and Josey Montana McCoy as Skeets Miller.

La Mirada’s production takes place in a 199-seat theater mounted on the larger venue’s main stage, making for palpable intimacy with the action. We the audience become part of the community trying to save Floyd, and sharing in his fate. Rich Rose’s clever multi-level scenic design puts us simultaneously on and below ground, aided by Lisa D. Katz’s expressive lighting. Musical direction is by David O, with overall direction by Richard Israel.

The Broadway genre lends itself to heaps of social commentary, especially if you look under the surface.

Floyd Collins plays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m., ending April 13. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Tickets at 562.944.9801, or www.lamiradatheatre.com.



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.