‘Collins’ escapes from the cave of subpar source text

This is the way the musical begins: not with a bang, but with a ballad. The lights rise on “Floyd Collins” as the ensemble amble in, rambling in turns to the wistful chords of an acoustic guitar, about the life and death of the story’s titular protagonist. This kickoff dirge immediately establishes the scope of the plot. “Listen to the tale of a man who got lost / a hundred feet under the winter frost,” sings Jewell (Raphael Shapiro ’12) as he strums the guitar. Collins (Miles Jacoby ’11) is eulogized not only as a “smart” and “brave” explorer but also as the kind of dreamer who might get stuck while exploring, say, Sand Cave. Which he does. Unfortunately, so does the plot. For the duration of the musical, save for a few tender dream sequences when he is reconciled with his family, Jacoby sits trapped in a narrow passageway of the cave, one leg fatefully pinned under a rock.

Perhaps the plot’s parameters, which are based on a real incident in Kentucky during the winter of 1925, are a little disappointing because the promises in the prefatory ballad are too well kept. The compelling premise is not balanced by any substantive emotional development or arc. The lack of narrative mystery would be fine if it wasn’t compounded by a script whose characters suffer from a dearth of emotional range. The traditional question — how to show, not tell? – while ineptly handled by the script is ingeniously solved by the director, design and cast.

As such, the strong opening soon becomes problematic, to no fault of Jacoby, who makes every effort to sustain the energy through the second song. The issue lies in this tripartite song — it lasts for over twelve uninterrupted minutes. The exhilaration of emptiness, as the audience and later Floyd himself find out, wears off quickly. It does, however, leave lots of space, which is filled in by the bold and crisp direction of Maya Seidler ’11 in what could have easily been, both literally and conceptually, a rather stationary play.

Although Jacoby is immobilized by his injury early on, Seidler does not limit him to sedentary inaction. He moves, as if alive again, during the fantastical dream sequences, and rotates his position throughout the show among the set’s cave pieces. When Jacoby breaks his leg in his first song, he kicks open a trick panel that floods the room with orange light. It’s a loud, arresting noise: a gripping theatrical illusion. What’s more, this successful arrangement of light and sound is but one example of the show’s ability to create an exciting, believable world.

The visual elegance of the show reaches its zenith when the cast enters gripping pink balloons. If the cave is too easy of an allegory, the balloon imagery will work just as well to represent the show as a spectacle of impressive form and less notable content.

The singing and acting were equally excellent in compensating for the story. The tension between Lee Collins, Floyd’s father, (Keith Rubin ’12) and Floyd’s brother Homer (Jeremy Lloyd ’12) intensified by Floyd’s prolonged absence, reaches a startling pressure point that both actors convincingly build and release. One of the best songs was the duet “The Riddle Song,” in which Jacoby and Lloyd seem to reunite, their perfectly matched harmony of voices complemented by a singular electric chemistry. However, the musical’s attempt to capture the sonic solitude of cave life was more successful in its staccato instrumentation than in the libretto, which bordered too frequently on irritating echolalia.

Another moment of dynamism, this time in the choreography, is the upbeat dance performed by the enterprising journalistic trio who come to town hot Collins’ trail. Yet as Collins’ fame progressively increases, so does the market value of his story, supplanting any genuine will to rescue the man himself. Only the local reporter, Skeets Miller (Mark Sonnenblick ’12), author of the first story on Collins, seems reluctant to capitalize on the myth of Floyd.

If you take away the balloon, all that’s left is the air, and maybe the rush of helium to the lungs, that, for a breath, allows anyone to play the ersatz soprano. Luckily, “Floyd Collins” provides us with expressive performances capable of a true vocal range.

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