Thursday, April 12, 2012

Notes from the underground

Mark Linehan and Phil Tayler connect in Floyd Collins. Photos: Sharman Altshuler.
I went to Floyd Collins - the latest from Moonbox Productions, at the BCA through this weekend - somewhat skeptical of its prospects.   This early Adam Guettel show has a cult following, but it's known as a tricky endeavor, so I doubted a fledgling theatre troupe (Floyd is only the third show from Moonbox) had much hope of pulling it off.

But to my surprise, I left pleased - and a little suspicious.  Who's behind all this? I wanted to know. Theatre companies just don't get this strong quite this quickly!  Someone with expertise and pull is clearly behind Moonbox - and given Michael Maso's presence in the house on the day I attended, I'm guessing there's some Huntington connection here - but honestly, despite my enthusiasm for games of theatrical Clue, for all I know this was produced by Colonel Mustard (in the Conservatory).

And just in case you can't tell - this is a long, back-handed kind of compliment; Floyd Collins, though not perfect, is still one of the shows to see right now in town (and you only have till Sunday).   It's notable for two major reasons - its lead, Phil Tayler, provides one of the most effortlessly charismatic performances of the year (with supporting actor Matthew Zahnzinger only a few steps behind).  And the musical direction, by Dan Rodriguez, is superb (even given the constraints of the BCA Plaza Theater space).

Which is a good thing, because this is one of Adam Guettel's strongest scores; I might even argue that it's a bit better than his big hit, The Light in the Piazza, which for me kind of congeals over its course into self-conscious post-romantic schmaltz.  Floyd is self-conscious, too (and how); but believe it or not, the tension between Guettel's two sources here - roughly, Ravel (!) and the folk music of the Appalachians - proves surprisingly fruitful.  Weirdly fruitful.  And Guettel's feel for phrases rather than melody finds its natural parallel in the yodeling that's common to the region - indeed, Floyd's opening "song," a long solo as he creeps further and further into a network of caves, yodeling to asses their size, may be the best thing Guettel has ever written, and it's brilliantly performed here by Tayler (with an assist from Dan Costello's evocative sound design, which later conjures a convincingly thunderous avalanche, too).

By now you're probably wondering - what the hell is Floyd Collins about?  Well, it's the tale of one of America's earliest (and largest) media sensations - the attempted rescue of the eponymous Floyd Collins, the eccentric operator of "Crystal Cave," one of Kentucky's lesser underground tourist attractions, from his entrapment in an uncharted cavern he had been exploring.  Poor Floyd didn't make it out in the end - but in the meantime, the media circus that surrounded the various efforts to free him became a legend in its own right.

The story has already inspired a minor film classic - Billy Wilder's caustic satire of media exploitation, Ace in the Hole, which still shocks in its cynicism (but only because it's so accurate about the press). Alas, Wilder's film failed at the box office; its worldview proved too acrid for popular taste.  And the musical didn't really become a hit, either; the rap on it is book problems - which I'm afraid it does indeed have (and which Moonbox does not quite triumph over).  But these largely stem from the fact that Guettel's librettist, Tina Landau, clearly wanted to dodge Wilder's dark tone, but keep some satiric edge to the material  - while simultaneously varnishing her characters with a solid coat of musical-theatre treacle.

Thus Floyd is here transformed into a wide-eyed innocent (when really he was spelunking more for profit than pleasure), while his neighbors, and even the reporters who descend on them, are viewed through a veil of sympathetic emotional gauze.   Now I'm not saying some surprising synthesis from these seemingly contradictory points of view is impossible - stranger things have happened! - but I am saying that Landau doesn't nearly pull it off in this case.

Still, the book has its moments.  The satire only works in one lightly pointed song - but Floyd's plight remains quite touching to the end, and his brief moments of human connection down there in the dark, buoyed by Guettel's delicate score, inevitably tug at the heart strings.  And Moonbox is certainly lucky in its Floyd - Phil Tayler (at left) offers both a beautifully sung and an utterly heartfelt performance.  Meanwhile Matthew Zahnzinger more than holds his own as Skeets Miller, the one newspaperman who really seems to care for Floyd, and there's also solid work from Mark Linehan, Teresa Winner Blume, and others in the cast.  Alas, the set isn't particularly evocative (although it gets the job done), and director Allison Choat can't quite keep the show's early momentum going - but she always keeps things in hand (wherever the tone may wander), and thank God everyone in the cast can sing (and as mentioned, the band is exemplary).  Fans of the minor gems of the recent Broadway catalogue won't want to miss this production - for I doubt we'll see a stronger Floyd Collins in these parts anytime soon.

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