In the early days of 1925, decades before Baby Jessica and O.J. and Monica Lewinsky and Nancy & Tonya and Watergate and Laci Peterson and Patty Hearst and Jon Benet and Octomom and Iran Contra and countless other 20th Century media circuses, a young Kentucky cave explorer named Floyd Collins became trapped in a narrow crawlway over fifty feet underground. Efforts to rescue him ignited a media frenzy, aided and abetted by the recent advent of broadcast radio that helped spread the news across the country.
Inspired by the two-week-long efforts to save Collins from a subterranean grave (and the carnival atmosphere that surrounded the rescue mission), Adam Guettel and Tina Landau wrote the 1996 Lucille Lortel/Obie Award-winning Floyd Collins, one of the most powerful musicals of the past two decades and one which La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts has now given an intimate “ONSTAGE” production that proves a brilliant follow-up to last year’s smash Spring Awakening.
From its striking opening tableau, to its full-cast musical prologue, “The Ballad Of Floyd Collins,” accompanied by teenaged balladeer Jewell Estes (Matt Magnusson) on guitar, to our first glimpse of Floyd crawling down and through narrow tunnels before reaching a rainbow-hued cave he hopes will bring the area fame and fortune, Guettel and Landeau’s musical grabs the audience tight and doesn’t let go till its powerful, gut-wrenching climax.
Mark Whitten stars as Floyd, first seen doing what he loves best, using the echoes of his voice to “sound out” his surroundings. (“Doh-oh oh de doh. Doh-oh oh de doh. That’s my glory callin’; It’s callin’ me.”)
Disaster soon strikes, however, as the intrepid caver falls down a narrow passageway, his foot becoming wedged into place by a small rock trapping him fifty-five feet below the surface.
From then on, Floyd’s brother Homer (Jonah Platt) and his fellow cave explorers endeavor to save Floyd, engineer H.T. Carmichael (Joe Hart) supervising a rescue attempt that by the end of Act One has attracted reporters from around the country, a scene described by Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Skeets Miller (Josey Montana McCoy) in “Carnival”: “From Kansas City to New York City, people have closed their newspapers and traveled here, on horseback, by buggy, by bicycle, on foot. Some have come to offer help, while others are here it seems to watch, to socialize, or to hawk their wares.” Sound familiar?
Reporters telegraph back their stories to Chicago, to Butte, to Savannah, to Abilene, rumors abounding as each attempts to outscoop the competition’s “poop.” A boulder soon becomes a two-ton slab of granite which becomes “seven tons of rock.” When a rescue worker remarks, “The one thing we can’t have happen is for Floyd to lose hope,” newsmen report the rumor that “Floyd’s starting to lose hope.” A reporter’s complaint about “freezing” in the cold gets misunderstood, leading to others proclaiming that “Floyd Collins is free!” And it doesn’t stop.
Meanwhile, Floyd’s father Lee (Larry Lederman), sister Nellie (Kim Huber), stepmom Miss Jane (Victoria Strong), and assorted locals and visitors (Michael Byrne as farmer Frederick Jordan, Jay Donnell as caver Ed Bishop, Michael Haller as filmmaker Cliff Rooney, Gary Lee Reed as farm owner Bee Doyle, and Zach Spound as Chicago physician Dr. Hazlett) watch and wait and hope and pray for a miracle as each second brings Floyd closer to death and despair.
Book writer Landau takes this slice of history and makes it personal, Guettel’s challenging melodies combining bluegrass guitar chords, American folk, and Stravinsky-esque dissonance to haunting effect. (Those hoping for the easily accessible melodies of Guettel’s grandfather Richard Rodgers are urged not to judge too quickly, perhaps even giving the original cast recording a listen or two as pre-show prep.)
Helming Floyd Collins with unfailing imagination and flair is the ever astonishing Richard Israel, winner of the Backstage Garland Award for directing Floyd for West Coast Ensemble in 2005, his experience and expertise shining throughout this considerably bigger-budget yet still intimate 199-seat revival, blessed by a cast combining some of L.A. finest young and seasoned musical theater talents, as superb an ensemble as you’d find on or off-Broadway.
Whitten’s deeply felt, gorgeously sung Floyd anchors the production, and unforgettably so, with an outstanding Platt providing expert support as Floyd’s unflaggingly supportive brother. (Whitten’s and Platt’s “The Riddle Song” is as tour-de-force a duet as any you’re likely to hear anytime soon.) L.A. musical theater treasure Huber is extraordinary as Floyd’s recently institutionalized sister Nellie, whose confidence in Floyd’s rescue the gloriously voiced Huber expresses in “Lucky” and “Through The Mountains,” the former duetted with Victoria Strong’s magnificent Miss Jane. As for L.A. theater newcomer McCoy, performances don’t come any richer or more charismatic than the Kentucky native’s as Skeet.
Magnusson’s vocal and guitar finesse are revealed to perfection in the role of narrator Jewell; Donnell, Reed, and West Coast Ensemble returnee Lederman provide first-rate backup; and Hart, just back from touring with Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, proves yet another cast standout as rescue bigwig Carmichael.
Last but most definitely not least are the terrific trio of Byrne, Haller, and Spound, whose talent (and quick-change artistry) are revealed in their multi-character, multi-costumed tracks, standout three-part Andrews Brothers harmonies and fancy-footwork spotlighted in the show-stopping Act Two opener, “Is That Remarkable?”.
With musical director extraordinaire David O conducting and playing keyboard in the production’s six-piece string-based orchestra (John Ballinger on guitars and percussion, Paul Cartwright on violin and viola, John Krovoza on cello, Nate Light on bass, and Jen Simone on violin), Floyd Collins sounds absolutely exquisite throughout.
Rich Rose’s ingenious, semi-abstract scenic design allows Whitten’s Floyd to explore twisting-and-turning tunnels and caves, aided by Lisa D. Katz’s gorgeous lighting design, our imaginations filling in the blanks. Josh Bessom’s sound design may well be the best I’ve ever heard from La Mirada Theatre regular, not only mixing amped vocals and instrumentals to perfection, but providing as dramatic an effects-laden soundtrack as I’ve experienced in a musical. Costume designer Kara McLeod deserves high marks as well, multi-character tracks and dream sequences making for one terrific outfit after another. Terry Hanrahan’s excellent properties complete the all-around topnotch design package.
Casting of this all-L.A. cast is by the ever resourceful Julia Flores. Donna R. Parsons is production stage manager, Nicole Wessel assistant stage manager, and David Cruise technical director. Brian Kite is producing artistic director.
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein revolutionized musical theater with their first collaboration, the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, the first of numerous R&H classics to demonstrate the power and versatility of this all-American art form. Rodgers’ grandson Adam continues this evolution with Floyd Collins (and the more recent, multiple Tony-winning The Light In The Piazza). The perfect follow-up to last year’s “ONSTAGE” production of Spring Awakening, Floyd Collins is La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts at its very best.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
March 29, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont