Theater Review: A haunting ‘Floyd Collins’

I had never seen anything quite like it, and it grew on me slowly. But I can’t stop thinking about, and humming snippets from, La Mirada Theatre’s revival of “Floyd Collins,” the odd, haunting musical about the Kentucky cave explorer who got himself trapped underground in 1925.

“The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” the gorgeous, melancholy folk song that opens the show (so authentic I was half-sure Bob Dylan covered it), sums up the story in two lines: “Went looking for his fortune under the ground. Sure enough his fortune is what he found.”
While uniquely American — the “media circus” that descended to cash in on Floyd’s plight has since become our own, homegrown tragic chorus — this claustrophobic morality tale has more in common with a horror story than the redemptive arc of so many musicals. Plenty of people probably told creators Tina Landau and Adam Guetell that “Floyd Collins” wouldn’t sing.
Fortunately they shared their protagonist’s recklessness — with happier results (i.e., the 1996 Obie Award for best score). Their offbeat creation, with its horrifying subject matter and dissonant, soaring, bluegrass-inflected music, returns to affecting life in director Richard Israel’s irresistibly intimate staging.

Mark Whitten, as Floyd, spends the bulk of the action immobile, but not before a vigorous physical display of singing, chortling and yodeling while shuffling through tunnels cleverly evoked by Rich Rose’s set and with Lisa D. Katz’s lighting.

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With his entrapment, though, the production’s true challenge begins: Israel tackles the muddled rescue attempts with inventive stagecraft, but they’re still difficult to follow, sometimes harrowing but often confusing, at once too detailed and poorly explained. Also, while Floyd is reminiscing, as in the wonderful duet, “The Riddle Song,” he sings with his brother, Homer (Jonah Platt), he is allowed to leave his living tomb and frisk around the stage. I couldn’t help wondering why he would agree to get back in at the end.


The above-ground action, staged with a stylized surrealism, works better: Balloons are sold, tall tales are told, and three newspaper hacks suddenly perform in tight harmony as a vaudeville act. One actor, Michael Byrne, plays multiple roles and keeps appearing in new costumes (by Kara McLeod) at a speed that defies explanation.

Overall, the disparate story elements and choppy pacing never quite cohere. But the excellent cast does: Kim Huber imparts a sweet intensity — and her exquisite singing voice — to Floyd’s emotionally fragile sister, Nellie. Larry Lederman is deeply sympathetic as Floyd’s grief-stricken, confused father, who complains of his three dreamy children: “I taught ’em best I could, but something not quite right with each and every one.” Josey Montana McCoy has an elfin appeal as cub reporter “Skeets” Miller, who both writes and takes part in Floyd’s story.

As for the bold, sweet-and-sour score, beautifully directed by David O: Give it some time. You may not love it at first, but it might stay with you.

“Floyd Collins,” La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 13. $20-$60. (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.