What I learned. . .

I first discovered Floyd Collins when I was driving from San Diego to Ashland.  Needing something new for the long drive home, I stopped at a Borders (remember Borders??) off Interstate 5 just north of San Diego, and took a leisurely stroll through the Broadway soundtracks bin.  A very interesting looking CD about some guy named Floyd Collins caught my eye. Tina Landau’s name was familiar to me; Adam Guettel’s less so – but something rang a distant bell.  Hadn’t there been recent chatter about this new, hard-to-categorize folk opera/American musical?  I bought it, popped it into the CD player, and was mesmerized for the entire journey back to Oregon.  I knew I wanted to direct the play from the very first note.  I also knew that Floyd Collins was a unique enough piece that I might have to wait a long time before I could.

It actually only took a year or two till Richard Carsey called to inquire if a) I knew the show and b) would I be interested in directing it?  I practically dropped the phone and leapt into it at the same time.  Yes, I knew it – and yes, I’d be thrilled to direct it.  Fortunately, the schedule gods worked in our favor, timing aligned, and I headed to Milwaukee in September, 2000 to begin rehearsals.

Floyd was challenging.  The score requires accomplished singer-actors, several of whom need superhuman physical-vocal stamina; the set needs to be minimal yet vastly evocative; lighting must connect the dots as the play veers from hallucination to reality, from mental interior to real world exterior, from below ground claustrophobia to above ground hysteria. 

Anyone who knows and has worked with Tony Clements is smitten from first meeting. He’s smart, he’s talented, he’s funny, and his limpid blue eyes reflect a compelling blend of strength and vulnerability.  I became a fan the moment we shook hands and knew instinctively he was the right actor to tackle Floyd.

The rest of the cast fell into place from there: Don Burroughs and Carol Linnea Johnson as Homer and Nellie, Floyd’s siblings; Jered Tanner as Skeets Miller, the diminutive and daring reporter; Laurie Birmingham and Chris Flieller as Floyd’s stoic parents.  Eric Stone’s simple but imaginative set solved the problems of the play’s numerous locales; Dawna Gregory provided pitch-perfect period costumes; and Mike Peterson’s inherent, visceral understanding of music produced a bold, fluid, and sensitive lighting design.  Again, I learned that superb collaborators make a director look all the better; no matter what, we’re never in this alone.

Some time after I discovered the Floyd Collins CD and getting to direct the play, I was waiting for the light to change at a stoplight in Cedar City, Utah, where I was rehearsing Forever Plaid and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  I realized that a young friend with a real love of musical theatre was in the car alongside mine.  I leaned across the seat, rolled down my window, and handed him my Floyd Collins CD.  “Here.  Listen to this.  ‘The Riddle Song’ is why we do musical theatre.”

I never got the CD back, but that’s okay.  I did get my wish to direct the play.  It’s not one that comes around often, but who knows? Maybe that wish will come to pass again.  And ‘The Riddle Song’ is still why we do musical theatre.

Floyd Collins

Skylight Opera Theatre

September, 2000

Don Burroughs, Tony Clements

Floyd Collins is a startlingly powerful work, based on a true story and masterfully shaped into an engrossing musical by composer-lyricist Adam Guettel.  Under the superb stage direction of Paul Barnes, Skylight Opera Theatre has made it a profound theatrical experience, the opening offering of their highly eclectic season.

Guettel’s music is highly rhythmic and original, yet it clearly draws on folk, bluegrass and Broadway styles (think Sondheim).  The score ranges from a reverberant cave echo, used in a very haunting and evocative way, to a tongue-tangling patter song for three song-and-dance men (brash newspaper reporters) and a gentle, touching solo scene for Floyd’s sister.

Skylight’s casting was inspired: everyone on the stage was passionate and effective. Tony Clements, as Floyd Collins, was onstage throughout as a strong, winning, central presence around whom the story swirled.  Don Burroughs,as Homer, Floyd’s brother, was the spark plug of the cast, energetic, handsome and strong in every way.  As Floyd’s simple sister, Nellie, Carol Linnea Johnson delivered a devastatingly touching, subtle character portrait.  Jered Tanner, as Skeets Miller, a newspaper reporter turned would-be rescuer, was disarmingly open and delightful; he was the last person to leave Floyd to his tragic fate.  Ma and Pa Colling, played by Laurie Birmingham and Chris Flieller, were specifically effective.

Scenic designer R. Eric Stone provided a spacious, ingeniously simple setting, while the costumes of designer Dawna Gregory established the place and period flawlessly.  Skylight’s orchestra, under the direction of Richard Carsey, seemed every bit as engaged as the actors.

     Lawrence Singer

     Opera News

“Do you want to know the direction in which American musical theater is headed?  Check out the new Skylight Opera Theatre production at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Some very smart people believe Floyd Collins is on the leading edge of musical theatre, injecting new ideas, fresh energy and an inventive spirit into a theatrical form that had grown tired and stale.  If that is true, Floyd Collins suggests we are entering an intriguing new era of artistic evolution on the stage.

Kudos to the Skylight for taking us there.  The company captures the true spirit and flavor of this richly theatrical piece in a production that opened Friday night in the Cabot Theatre.

Floyd Collins seamlessly blends an engrossing human story that happens to be true with a score that presents an audience with challenges and rewards.

In the musical, composer-lyricist Adam Guettel and librettist Tina Landau present a humanizing and vaguely spiritual counterpoint to the crass exploitation of Collins’ predicament that is going on above ground.  They get inside Floyd’s head to reflect emotions that range from joy to angry frustration, and they focus on a fierce loyalty that exists between him and his siblings, a headstrong younger brother and a slightly unbalanced sister.

Floyd Collins is haunting but not dark, engaging but not melodramatic.  It even has moments of buoyancy.  Guettel, the grandson of Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Mary Rodgers, uses Floyd’s subterranean environment to create unusual echoes in the show’s music.  His score starts with Appalachian bluegrass and folk genres, and broadens into a traditional Broadway style with unique harmonic influences.

Floyd Collins is staged with minimal scenery, making the audience’s imagination a collaborator in the show.  Hanging ropes and clever use of light and shadow, designed here by Michael A. Peterson, evoke the cave.  Floyd lies almost motionless on an inclined board that is moved up and downstage as the focus shifts between him and the rescue activities above ground.

The Skylight cast, under Paul Barnes’ direction, performs very well.  Tony Clements’ Floyd is vocally superb as he convincingly conveys the character’s fights of joy, fits of frustration and ultimate acceptance of his fate. 

Jered Tanner is especially affecting as a young newspaper reporter who repeatedly crawls into the cave, becoming the humanizing link between Floyd and the outside world.  Carol Linnea Johnson and Don Burroughs provide interesting, well-defined portraits of Floyd’s sibling while singing with emotional texture and strength.”

     Damien Jacques

     The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Musical theatre has been uniquely and quintessentially American, at least until a bloke named Andrew Lloyd Weber turned up on the Great White Way with shows like Cats, Phantom, and Sunset Boulevard, all of which threatened permanent residency.

Now American composers and lyricists are attempting to reclaim the musical and it is difficult to imagine a more American musical than Floyd Collins, the new Skylight Theatre production at the Broadway Theatre Center.  Based upon the life of a real Floyd Collins, the show created by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau is haunting, poignant but ultimately somewhat enigmatic.

Floyd (Tony Clements) remains its emotional heart and soul and it is difficult to imagine this pivotal role better cast.  Clements’ Floyd is an all too human creation, wonderfully expressing the character’s initial innocence and fervor, then capturing each stage of acceptance as he learns his fate.

Although Floyd is never far from our thoughts, two additional characters vie for the audience’s attention and sympathies.  Homer Collins (Don Burroughs) is Floyd’s brother and would-be rescuer who finds it impossible not to be seduced by his fifteen minutes of fame.  Even more impressive is Jered Tanner’s Skeets Miller, the journalist who rose to fame in covering Floyd’s story.  Miller’s story is indeed fascinating, that of a newspaperman who becomes such a central figure in the story he’s been sent to cover and Tanner offers a knockout performance.

In addition to the fine ensemble, special mention must be given to Paul Barnes’ staging of the show.  Faced with the difficult task of scenes that alternate between above and below ground, Barnes opts for the minimalist approach, choosing a simple effective staging which is suggestive without becoming distracting.

This Floyd Collins is something rather special, a musical with both heart and intelligence with a unique slice of Americana thrown in for good measure.”

     Carl M. Szatmary

“One of Milwaukee’s most respected theater companies has aimed high with a knock-out production of Floyd Collins.  This extraordinarily challenging musical is based on the true story of Floyd Collins, a 38-year old cave explorer who became trapped underground while searching for “gold” – a cavern that could be turned into a popular tourist attraction.  Ironically, little did Floyd realize he would become the attraction, as the entire nation turned its attention to his rescue.

The audience learns much about Floyd’s hopes and dreams as he sits imprisoned in the cold Kentucky hillside.  He receives many visits from his brother (convincingly played by Don Burroughs) and a ‘mosquito-sized’ cub reporter, dubbed ‘Skeets’ Miller (Jered Tanner).  In a way, this is Skeet’s story as much as Floyd’s, since he’s the one who has the most regular contact with Floyd ad yet is part of the media circus at ground level.  His realization of, “my God, what have I done?” is as heartfelt as Floyd’s gradual acceptance that his legendary luck has run out.  Floyd’s grief-wracked family gets caught up in the hoopla, too.  They drink, bicker and, in the case of Floyd’s slightly unbalanced sister, consult crickets and otherworldly beings.  Carol Linnea Johnson brings a touching humanity to her role as the sister.  She plays well off of Tony Clements, who is everything one could wish for in a leading man.

As one would expect from the Skylight Opera Theater, the cast is vocally superb, conveying the music’s richness, under the adroit direction of music director Richard Carsey.  Director Paul Barnes keeps the action moving in a way to prevent claustrophobia, which is a very real possibility for the man-trapped-underground theme.  Credit also goes to set designer R. Eric Stone for creating an environment that is suggestive of Floyd’s plight without being oppressive.

Floyd Collins is a rare treat for the adventurous theatergoer.  It may not find the broad audience that other downbeat musicals have gained (such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd), but it is worthy for bringing a historical footnote to life in such an engaging way.”

     Anne Siegel