USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory undertakes one of its most daunting projects to date in Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s Floyd Collins, and if MTR’s latest entirely student performed, directed (by Victoria Pearlman), and designed production isn’t as thoroughly successful as many previous undertakings, some outstanding lead performances and a superb student orchestra are just two reasons to check it out.

10419425_852157084809062_917566643938114213_n 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 on January 30, 1925 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, helping to 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), Guettel and Landau wrote the 1996 Lucille Lortel/Obie Award-winning chamber piece bearing Floyd’s name, one of the most powerful musicals of the past two decades.

From its striking opening tableau, to its full-cast musical prologue, “The Ballad Of Floyd Collins,” accompanied by teenaged balladeer Jewell Estes (Judd York) on guitar, to our first glimpse of Floyd crawling down and through narrow tunnels before reaching a cave he hopes will bring the area fame and fortune, Guettel and Landeau’s musical has the power to grab the audience tight and not let go till its powerful, gut-wrenching climax.

Kalev Rudolph 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 (Patrick Wallace) and his fellow cave explorers endeavor to save Floyd, engineer H.T. Carmichael (Parker Huseby) 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 (Austin Hammer) 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 (Kevin Paley), sister Nellie (Arielle Fishman), stepmom Miss Jane (Kimberlee Holland), and assorted locals and visitors (Chris Wodniak as caver Ed Bishop, Massimo Napoli as filmmaker Cliff Rooney, Ezie Nguyen as farm owner Bee Doyle, Aubrey Rhodes as Chicago physician Dr. Hazlett, and Turner Frankosky as “sparkplug” Eddie Bray among them) watch and wait and hope and pray (and rack in the dough) as each second brings Floyd closer to despair and death.

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.)

There is much to recommend in this latest Musical Theatre Repertory production, but there are stumbling blocks that prevent it from achieving the heights set by MTR’s best—2013’s Sweeney Todd—and a number of others of almost equal excellence.

Mosquito-sized reporter Skeets, though purportedly the only potential rescuer small enough to get close to Floyd, is no shorter here and perhaps only a tad ganglier than Homer (or just about anyone else). More seriously flawed is the decision to have the reporter played as a clueless bumpkin whose “I Landed On Him,” instead of being the devastating realization that there is indeed a living, breathing human being down there, ends up provoking laughter, at least on Opening Night. That Skeets emerges suit stained in shoulders-to-ankles mud but spotless straw boater hat intact doesn’t help, though curiously, Skeets’ later excursions underground leave the washed-and-ironed suit unstained. The reporter does gain a certain gravitas as Floyd Collins reaches its climactic moments, however it ends up a case of too little, too late, and much of Floyd Collins’ power is undermined by wrong choices being made.

Another obstacle to a more all-around-successful Floyd Collins is a scenic design that, along with the staging of certain scenes, proves logistically confusing. Though effectively capturing the feel of the cave world Floyd calls home, the set does not make sufficiently clear just how (and in how tight a space) Floyd is trapped. A number of two-person scenes make it appear that a potential rescuer need only lean down to dislodge the rock from atop Floyd’s foot, it being unclear if anything at all separates rescue worker from trapped victim. Lighting design does help clarify at times, but it is unclear if some curious lighting choices were intentional or the result of opening night technical difficulties.

Lastly, the actors’ authentic-sounding Kentucky accents can get so thick as to render dialog incomprehensible, making key bits of information (including Nellie’s institutionalization and the overheard words that get “lost in translation” in “Isn’t It Remarkable?”) difficult to grasp.

Fortunately a lot more works than doesn’t work in MTR’s Floyd Collins, most significantly the memorable performances being given by leading trio Rudolph (heartbreakingly real), Fishman (incandescently lovely), and Wallace (dynamic and charismatic), all three performers not only meeting the acting challenges posed but also the vocal demands of Guettel’s complex melodies. Rudolph and Wallace’s dramatic, intriguing “The Riddle Song” proves a terrific showcase for both up-and-comers, while Fishman’s vocals simply could not be more exquisite in “Lucky” and “Through The Mountains,” the former duetted with Holland’s marvelous Miss Jane.

Paley stands out too in a dramatic role far removed from his delightful comedic turns in tick, tick… BOOM! and Little Shop Of Horrors, Judd Yort sings and strums to appealing effect as Jewell, and Clint Blakely, Henry Boyd, and Nathan Heldman, in addition to acing their numerous cameos, prove delicious scene-stealers with their three-part Andrews Brothers harmonies and fancy-footwork (choreography by Sarah Fanella) in the show-stopping “Is This Remarkable?”

The latter number and an extraordinarily powerful and imaginatively staged “The Dream” represent director Pearlman at her best, and with musical director Anthony Lucca demonstrating absolute command of the material in addition to conducting the production’s thoroughly professional orchestra*, Guettel’s music is in capable hands indeed.

Costume designer Marly Hall scores high marks for her folksy period garb. G. Austin Allen is scenographer, Danielle Kisner sound designer, and Christina Lelon properties master, with Justus Bradshaw serving as technical director and Lea Branyan as stage manager. Ryan McRee is assistant director. Floyd Collins is produced by Alice Pollitt and Jackson Strike.

It has been this reviewer’s pleasure and honor over the past eight years to attend a grand total of fourteen Musical Theatre Repertory productions, and though Floyd Collins is not the unqualified triumph I was hoping for, I cannot but continue to sing the praises of this unique contributor to our Southern California musical theater scene.

Now celebrating its 10th season of shows at USC (Into The Woods is up next), Musical Theatre Repertory remains thrillingly one-of-a-kind, and well worth checking out.

Massman Theatre at USC.

–Steven Stanley
October 16, 2014

* Lucca on keyboard, Austin Chanu on harmonica, Ryan McDiarmid on percussion, Ethan Sherman on guitar and banjo, Julian McClanahan on violin, Austin Shaw on cello, and Santino Tafarella on bass

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