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REVIEW: "Floyd Collins" - Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

“...The failure of the jack attempt at one o’clock Wednesday morning was a crushing blow for Floyd Collins. Throughout his long ordeal since Friday, January 30, he had experienced a number of emotional lows, but he had remained convinced that ultimately he would be freed. On Tuesday night, while Skeets Miller was working with the jacks, he had believed that his release was only minutes away. Now he was unsure and extremely fearful. Despite the added comfort of the electric light, the departure of the young newsman had heightened Floyd’s feeling of apprehension and loneliness. An overpowering sense of helplessness clung to him…”

Floyd Collins was an American spelunker, principally in a region of Central Kentucky that houses hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns within Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. In the early 20th century, commercial cave owners in Kentucky entered into a fierce competition to exploit the bounty of these caves for commercial profit, charging tourists handsomely to explore the inner expanse and beauty of these wonders of nature. One of those poor farming families was the Collins.

Directed by Kathy Paladino, and Produced by David Colley, Newport Theatre Arts Center proudly presents the paragon musical masterwork, “Floyd Collins,” running from March 22nd through April 21st , in a show that perpetuates the legend, and personifies the courageous spirit of a man helplessly trapped in an eerie underground prison.

It’s one of those true stories you really couldn’t make up. It’s 1925 Kentucky, and Floyd Collins (Stephen Hulsey), visionary cave explorer, happens across a spectacular sand cave – the sand cave of his dreams – only to become gridlocked on his way back to the surface. After several hours of exploration, Collins accidentally knocked over his lamp, putting out the light, and was caught by a rock from the cave ceiling, pinning his left leg. The falling rock weighed only 16 pounds, but because of its position, it had wedged in perfectly, making it impossible for him to wiggle free.

After four cold days and nights, during which time rescuers were able to bring water and food to Collins, a rock collapse in the cave closed off the entrance passageway, stranding him except for voice contact for more than two weeks. Collins died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia after being isolated for 14 days, just three days before a rescue shaft reached his position. It would later take a full two months to finally recover his body.

Newspaper reporter "Skeets" Miller, heroically played by Mark Tillman (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “12 Angry Men”), from The Courier-Journal in Louisville, reported on the rescue efforts from the scene. Miller interviewed Collins in the cave, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage and played an important part in Collins' attempted rescue. Miller's reports and news bulletins propelled Floyd’s story into a national event and a newspaper sensation, attracting more than 30,000 reporters, freebooters, carpetbaggers and opportunists to that obscure Kentucky field. It was one of the first major news stories to be reported using the new technology of broadcast radio, and became the third-biggest media event between the world wars. Paradoxically, all three top stories of that era involved Charles Lindbergh: His non-stop flight to Paris, the kidnapping of his son, and his delivery of negative photography to newspapers regarding the Floyd Collins incident.

The legend of Floyd Collins captured the attention of composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and book writer Tina Landau more than 75 years later, who created a heart-wrenching 1996 musical drawn from Bluegrass, Americana, and other complex musical forms, resulting in a bold, sweet-and-sour score, which netted a 1996 Obie Award. Guettel’s extraordinary gifts may or may not be directly related to his distinguished heritage, but it does help when your grandfather is the great Richard Rodgers. Musically speaking, Guettel’s two produced theatre pieces – “Floyd Collins” and “The Light in the Piazza” – are both unquestionable masterpieces and, although they inhabit different universes, they are clearly by the same composer.

Guettel’s searching melodic lines, wavering as they do between key centers, are uniquely his own and does not follow the typical musical theater formula. The main beauty of “Floyd Collins” is in its complexity – and yet the Bluegrass tone and homespun directness of the musical language sounds thoroughly unprecedented. You almost don’t notice that the score is diced with atonality and seems to have cross-fertilized its country accenting with that of Stravinsky.

Some of the most genius aspects of this musical are those intimate, quiet moments where Floyd, portrayed by the excellent Stephen Hulsey, who is also the Music Director (“1776,” “Rocky Horror Show”), his brother Homer (Jonathan Haidl, “Spring Awakening,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), and sister Nellie, played by the wonderful Victoria Serra (“American Ambassador,” “Bonnie & Clyde”), reflect in isolation or in concert. One of the joys of Mr. Hulsey’s terrific musical direction is the way in which his pitch-perfect cast inhabits the style of the score. Ms. Serra so perfectly catches the telling vocal aches and sobs of her numbers, bringing a glowing innocence to dreamy-minded sister Nellie, who feels mystically connected to Floyd.

The singing and acting of the entire cast, in fact, blaze with commitment. Christopher Diem (“The Amorous Ambassador,” “James and The Giant Peach”), as Jewell Estes, astounds in “The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” the gorgeous, melancholy folk song that opens the show (so authentic, it sounds like Bob Dillon may have written it). The ballad sums up the story in two lines: “Went looking for his fortune under the ground. Sure enough his fortune is what he found.”

Veritably, Mr. Hulsey spends the preponderance of the action immobile, but not before a vigorous physical display of singing, chortling and scat yodeling, complete with haunting cave echoes, all while shuffling through tunnels cleverly evoked by Andrew Otero’s ingenious Set, Jackson Halphide’s inventive Lighting and Brian Page’s pleasing Sound Design. Projection brings background images representing torrential rain, fireworks, and bitter winter light above ground. Soulful playing from a seven-piece band conducted by Stella Monshaw is partially hidden by a halftone curtain upstage of the proscenium. Costume Design is by Tom Phillips and Larry Watts. Props are managed by Marty Miller, and Projections are by Stephanie Garrison and Victoria Serra.

Mr. Hulsey’s Floyd has the bulk of the ballads, and renders splendidly in songs like “Time to Go,” “An’ She’d Have Blue Eyes” and with Homer, “Daybreak.” Mr. Haidl gives his best-ever performance as Homer, who alternates between anger and dread and attempts to distract Floyd from his loneliness and pain. The heartfelt singing of these two forms the show’s emotional core, and they both make something truly brilliant of the sensational Act One closer, “The Riddle Song.”

David Colley (“1776”), a strong actor who depicts Floyd’s grief-stricken, religious father, Lee, gives solid vocal support in “Where a Man Belongs” and “Heart and Hand.” Lee complains of his three dreamy children: “I taught ’em best I could, but something not quite right with each and every one.”

Movie veteran and stuntman Robert Dill (“The Crucible”), as Bee Doyle, also a regular player at this theatre, characterizes the farmer in Barren County that has the cave on his land.

And in a nod to the popular, city slicking close groups of the ‘20s, the stage is suddenly given to a trio of reporters to perform in tight barbershop-style harmony as a vaudeville act, whose talent for misinformation knows no bounds. Unexpectedly, they stop the show in “Is That Remarkable?” with their intricate three-part harmony, their precise, synchronous moves and crisp rapid-fire delivery, thanks to Choreographer Jackie Melbon.

Allison McGuire is the strong, stoic Miss Jane, Stan Morrow portrays the friendly, animated Ed Bishop, and Angie Watson (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Crucible”) gives multiple illustrations of her copious talents as a reporter and a movie director. In addition, Eric Anderson and Jake Burnett add much to ensemble chorales as well as delineating reporters. Eldon Callaway (“1776,” “The Crucible”) plays the engineer H. T. Carmichael as selfish and misguided but keeps him from being a simple villain. As the proud, stubborn industrialist, Mr. Callaway recreates a perfect historical look at Carmichael’s interplay in the story.

The show also has one of the most exhilarating moments in contemporary musical theatre (Sondheim has been documented as saying he wished he’d written it) as Floyd suddenly imagines he is free and reliving childhood games with his brother. It’s a device which will reoccur at the climax of the piece where the imaginary “grand opening” of the Great Sand Cave assumes, in Director Paladino’s staging, an almost religious pageant-like quality with the entire Collins family attired in white or light colored clothing. But soon enough, the cave echo fails to return Floyd’s jubilant vocalizing and he realizes it is only a dream.

Stephen Hulsey’s incandescent performance is quite remarkable and takes us with him through Floyd’s entire emotional arc. We see his joy in caving, his wonder at discovery, his pain and despair, his accommodation with fate and his final ecstatic vision in the eleven o’clock number, “How Glory Goes.” The song serves as a finale and duly tests your heartstrings, but by then the show is no longer happening on the Calvary-like slab of rock on which Floyd is in a sense crucified but is now instead in our heads and hearts.

Surprisingly, Floyd Collins still lives today and has managed to keep in the limelight. Although he was a relatively unknown figure in his lifetime, the fame he gained from his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the "Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known," inspiring several short books, a museum, several short songs, a film documentary and a Billy Wilder movie starring Kirk Douglas. In 2006, Billy Bob Thornton optioned the film rights to yet another screenplay about the story of Floyd Collins. But probably the most recent tribute is from the Kentucky based rock band, “Black Stone Cherry,” with a track on their 2008 album called, “The Ghost of Floyd Collins.”

This harrowing, brilliant, true-to-life musical is one that leaves you with a chill, but also leaves the audience pondering at the flawed character of mankind, while at the same time celebrating the tenacious nature of his human spirit. I would highly recommend experiencing that feeling! “Floyd Collins,” the musical, will be at Newport Theatre Arts Center through April 21st. For ticket information and availability, please go to:

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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