Floyd Collins

Daren Herbert as Floyd Credit: David Cooper
Daren Herbert as Floyd Collins
Credit: David Cooper

At York Theatre until March 30

Posted March 14, 2014

This is a glorious production of a very strange musical. It’s certainly not Rodgers and Hammerstein; it’s not even Stephen Sondheim whose Sweeney Todd is comically dark. Floyd Collins is just dark. It has a few light moments – like Homer (Michael Torontow) and Floyd (Daren Herbert), as boys, having fun at the ol’ swimmin’ hole – but there’s not much joy in watching a character trapped by his foot one hundred feet underground in a cave where – spoiler alert – he dies.

But, directed by Peter Jorgensen for Patrick Street Productions and Talk Is Free Theatre, this show is beautifully designed, superbly performed, masterfully directed and extremely polished.

Michael Toronto and Daren Herbert Credit: David Cooper
Michael Toronto and Daren Herbert
Credit: David Cooper

With music (and lyrics) by Adam Guettel, who also wrote The Light in the Piazza, the music (described in Wikipedia as “bluegrass, Americana, and more complex musical forms that have their antecedents in the likes of Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky”) is difficult but Jorgensen’s cast of thirteen delivers the almost twenty songs with assurance and precision. There really is not a weak or uncertain voice in the whole show.

Daren Herbert, as Floyd, puts us all at ease right off the top with “The Call” followed by “Time to Go”. Handsome and charismatic, Herbert has a powerful, confident voice that sets the standard immediately. It’s a bit strange to open with two back-to-back solos by the main character; it makes for a rather delayed entry into the dynamics of the story but a lot of exposition gets taken care of in short order.

The place: Barren County, Kentucky. The time: January 31-February 17, 1925. The area is poor in fertile farmland but rich in caves and potential for tourists’a dollars. As early as 1812, competition was stiff; on the way to world-famous Mammoth Cave were found Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Crystal Cave and many more. Good money could be made in ticket sales, refreshments, and souvenirs – all the trappings of county fairs.

The Cast on Amir Ofek's set Credit: David Cooper
The Cast on Amir Ofek’s set
Credit: David Cooper

Young Floyd Collins has been spelunking since he was a boy and now, finally, as a young man, he has happened upon a monster cave that will lift his whole family out of their hardscrabble lives.

After Floyd is trapped, what ensues is a circus of newspaper reporters, filmmakers, men with big ideas and the hawking of goods to the thousands of tourists who flood in on bicycles, on horseback and on foot and in cars.

Amir Ofek’s effective set is a series of planked platforms set at odd angles much like tectonic plates, in the middle of which is the entrance to the cave. For much of Floyd Collins, we see Herbert on his back under the edge of one of the ‘plates’. Jeff Harrison’s lighting adds to the above ground/below ground environment.

Barbara Clayden’s costumes are the beige and brown, cotton and wool farm clothes of the period. Floyd’s sister Nellie (Krystin Pellerin) is set apart by her pale blue, drop-waist frock and while it’s initially curious to see her so differently dressed from the rest of the farm folk, it becomes apparent – eventually – why Clayden chose to make her stand out.

Kevin McNulty and Katey Wright Credit: David Cooper
Kevin McNulty and Katey Wright
Credit: David Cooper

As she did in Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, Katey Wright delivers one of the show’s most touching, most musically accessible moments when she sings “Heart an’ Hand” as her character, Miss Jane, sits consoling  Floyd’s father (Kevin McNulty). One light, bright scene – and welcomed for its levity – is a trio of reporters singing their copy: “deeply religious, comma” or “losing hope, period” in “Is That Remarkable?”

This is an ambitious mounting of a difficult musical that will not be to everyone’s liking. The subject feels more suitable to film. Opera buffs might love it. Having experienced one disastrous spelunking adventure myself, I couldn’t help but think, why don’t they stop singing, get down there and get the guy out? It’s just so dark and cold down there.