In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review a Washington-area revival of Floyd Collins. Here’s an excerpt.
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“Floyd Collins,” the 1996 musical in which Adam Guettel and Tina Landau told the tale of the hapless spelunker who got himself trapped in Kentucky’s Sand Cave in 1925 and so triggered the first modern media frenzy, is greatly admired but has never been popular and is rarely revived professionally. I’ve reviewed the show only once in this space, in Chicago four years ago, at which time I called it “the first great post-Sondheim musical.” Even that was an understatement: “Floyd Collins” is the finest work of American musical theater, not excluding opera, to come along since Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” But it is also, for all its surface simplicity, harder to produce than you’d think, which is one reason why stagings of this genre-transcending masterpiece are so uncommon.
It is, therefore, very good news that 1st Stage, which operates out of a 100-seat theater located in a suburban strip mall not far from Washington, D.C., has given “Floyd Collins” a worthy revival, one as emotionally compelling as the production of “Side Man” that first brought the company to my attention in 2012. The cast is strong, the musical preparation impressively thorough, and notwithstanding certain weaknesses in design, the show itself, plainly and effectively directed by Nick Olcott, comes through with tremendous force. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being touched to the heart by this revival.
“Floyd Collins” has little but its subject matter in common with “Ace in the Hole,” the 1951 movie in which Billy Wilder portrayed with fathomlessly black cynicism the hoopla whipped up by Collins’ plight. To be sure, it does show us what happened above ground at Sand Cave, but that pop-culture circus is presented by Mr. Guettel and Ms. Landau not as a “Babbitt”-like skewering of the Roaring Twenties but as a melancholy episode in the inexorable coming of modernity to rural America. Moreover, the focus of the show is on Collins himself (played at 1st Stage by Evan Casey). His desperate struggle becomes a parable of purification by suffering, a not-quite-secular passion play that ends with a soaring aria in which the dying Collins sings of his hallucinatory vision of the substance of things not seen: “Has a shinin’ truth been waiting there/For all the questions everywhere?”…
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Read the whole thing here.
A preview of the 1st Stage production of Floyd Collins:
A scene from Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas:
Romain Frugé, who played the title role in the 1996 Playwrights Horizons production of Floyd Collins, sings “How Glory Goes” at the 2003 reunion concert by the original cast: