In life, Floyd Collins could not savor the fame he craved. The young Kentuckian became a celebrity after a 1925 cave-exploring expedition went horribly awry. Pinned under heavy rock, Collins survived for more than a week underground but rescue efforts failed to free him.
The carnival of tourism and breathless media coverage of the tragedy was satirized in Billy Wilder’s film “Ace in the Hole.” Floyd’s story is also addressed in “Floyd Collins,” a daring Off Broadway musical composed by Adam Guettel a decade before the 2003 Seattle debut of his Broadway hit, “The Light in the Piazza.”
The earlier work is now getting its first (to my knowledge) mounting in Seattle, thanks to the can-do fringe troupe STAGEright. No surprise it’s taken so long, given the show’s big cast, a difficult score and rather grim premise.
Despite a clearly uneven cast, STAGEright gives its all under Lindsey Larson’s lively direction to this bittersweet (and not humorless, praise be) chronicle of likable, enterprising Floyd (Brian Lange), his hardscrabble family and friends, and the hucksters descending on them.
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To its credit, this is a humane portrait of a community in crisis, not just one individual. Yes, we return often to Floyd sweating it out in his living tomb (evoked effectively in Brandon Estrella’s simple set), which makes for a weighty 2 ½ hours. But the viewpoint here is not claustrophobic.
There is spoken dialogue (book by Tina Landau), however music is the main means of expression. Mostly conversational in tone, and sprinkled with folksy touches, it is often jarring in form. Unbridled rhythms and jagged melodic lines dominate, rather than conventional Broadway-style tunes.
The sonic adventurousness is both stimulating, and frustrating. When Guettel does surrender to song the score soars.
Chelsea LeValley beguiles vocally and dramatically as quirky, spunky Nellie Collins. Her rendition of the sparkling “Through the Mountain,” a song fantasizing a glorious reunion with her brother Floyd, is a high point. Lange’s robust rendition of the majestic spiritual soliloquy “Where Glory Goes,” is another peak.
Guettel’s sophisticated choral writing shines, as does a tender, wrenching duet (“Heart An’ Hand”) for Floyd’s weary parents (poignant Bill Johns and Beth Wallace). As a lyricist, Guettel excels at mixed-emotion sentiments — a talent he shares with mentor Stephen Sondheim. (Note: Landau also contributed to the lyrics.)
Some voices are weak here, some acting overeager. And even some of the better singers, like Lange and Jordan Melin, as Floyd’s brother Homer, need more vocal nuance, and volume control. (It’s not so easy being heard above Mark Rabe’s adept but over-amped piano backing, but bombast in the compact Richard Hugo House theater is painful.)
All in all, STAGEright merits kudos for taking on “Floyd Collins” — an early, bold chapter in an immensely gifted composer’s musical life.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org