For two songs, “Floyd Collins” is a perfect musical — full of life, somber portent, dramatic irony, inventive music and Christopher Grobe ’05.
Grobe, who is completely at home in his character’s skin, plays Floyd Collins, the stubble-faced, amateur spelunker and hopelessly tragic dreamer. He smiles an explorer’s hungry smile when he hollers into the mouth of Sand Cave in Kentucky and, a few seconds later, gets slapped across the face by his brilliant echo. Tantalized with heroic visions of discovery and oozing self-confidence, Collins ducks inside, hunting for beauty so wondrous as to win him fame and fortune. As Collins crawls and rappels across the empty and raked stage, he starts to scat-yodel with excitement and a quartet arises when his echoes sing back. Collins harmonizes with himself and the mellifluous result is the evening’s musical high point. Grobe’s voice is so easy to listen to, you wish the cave walls had it in them to produce an octet. Then Collins discovers a cave that will be a surefire tourist trap and triumphantly claims it as his own, scratching his name into the floor. Pure entrepreneurial bliss glazes over his eyes.
We know from the show’s opening folk ballad, however, that this expedition can’t end well for Collins. Before he can make his way back to daylight, a block of limestone collapses on top of him, pinning his leg to the ground and trapping him for sixteen days. The true story of Floyd Collins’ imprisonment, a battle of naivete against naivete — Collins’ belief of invincibility and the outside world’s inept plans for rescuing him — was front page news from New York to Los Angeles in 1925, transfixing the nation. Unlike the real-life crisis, Yale Dramat’s production of”Floyd Collins,” under the direction of Daniel Goldstein, captivates us for just the first two numbers. After that, the show gets pinned to mediocrity by multiple theatrical boulders.
The largest is the cumbersome nature of “Floyd Collins” as a musical. Most of the numbers in the show exist only because Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) and Tina Landau (book and additional lyrics) were hell-bent on creating a musical, for better or worse. Though mildly entertaining throughout, most of their efforts are for worse, with no particular fault to the cast, which does a fine job with the material.
“Floyd Collins” is utterly formulaic. Collins’ big solo is followed by an even bigger ensemble number. The beginning was dominated by the males, so an intimate song with two women, Collins’ sister (Ashley Lynn ’05) and stepmother (Anjanine Bonet ’05) follows. The equivalent song for men features Collins and his dedicated brother, Homer (Andy Sandberg ’05). There are energetic numbers sandwiching the intermission, a vaudeville act somewhere in the middle, and a wistful solo by the supporting female late in the second act. In and of itself, this is wouldn’t be objectionable if the songs served a purpose — to advance a good story, to be artistically meritorious, or simply to be fun. But after the first two songs, which satisfy all three requirements, the rest are at best largely forgettable and, at worst, bland. By the end of the show, the songs are mere place-holders, absorbing minute after minute because, after all, a musical needs to have music.
One can’t blame Guettel and Landau for being grabbed by the real-life story and thinking that its drama could translate well to the stage. I agree. But when I went back to read the original newspaper accounts, I found they told a story that was both richer and more entertaining than the musical. The Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William “Skeets” Miller, played here by David Lerman ’04, won a Pulitzer in 1926 for his coverage. Most importantly, the news accounts had my heart pumping, my brow sweating — something the musical failed to do. The articles were vibrant with poetry and laced with suspense. The newspapers observed that express trains suddenly made Barren County a regular stop, and that people from all over donated miscellaneous hand tools to the rescue effort. They even ran editorials questioning why the public cared so deeply for Collins but remained indifferent to an Indiana coal mine explosion that killed thirty while Collins fought for his life. There’s a media circus and tourist carnival scene in the play, but it feels more contrived than a chaotic outpouring of emotion, and it glosses over both the huge irony that Collins succeeded in creating a genuine tourist attraction and the extreme cynicism with which Floyd’s father hawked $2 admission to the site. In the musical, the father (Edward Bailey ’04) collects empty Coke bottles for their refund value.
It is both amusing and informative, then, to think back to last year’s terrifically fun Dramat mainstage, “Bat Boy: The Musical,” when a pointy-eared Grobe was discovered in a cave in West Virginia. The strengths of “Bat Boy” point to what’s missing in “Floyd Collins.” I wondered then, as I wonder now, if a modern musical can truly succeed without being overtly self-conscious or heavy on irony and cynicism — especially if the musical focuses on a media frenzy magnitudes of order smaller than the Monica Lewinsky scandal and hanging chad debate. “Floyd Collins” has a pinch of satire in its vaudeville trio of reporters singing about getting the scoop. But without full-blown reflexivity, the play seems to be a continuation of Collins’ exploitation.
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