“FLOYD COLLINS”; a tragic musical based on reality Reply

Review by Danny Gaisin
‘There was a spelunker named Floyd; who was told caving he should avoid.
But he didn’t listen – in the cave he went missin’; his naysayers had the last ‘woid’.
Even the most unflappable columnists sometimes go off the rails, so please forgive the above doggerel as just yours truly being immature. In any case, it does reflect the plot of Guettel & Landau’s musical “FLOYD COLLINS”. Every snowbird driving south on U.S. 75 passes the turnoff sign for Mammoth Cave just north of the Kentucky Tennessee border.

Ben Chiasson as "FLOYD COLLINS", alone in his underground grotto

Ben Chiasson as “FLOYD COLLINS”, alone in his underground grotto

The 1925 saga of Willy Floyd and the efforts to rescue him became the first ‘media circus’ with press folks writing headlines based on partial or mis-quotes; each one more fictitious than anything written earlier. One exception, William ‘Skeets’ Miller, a cub reporter with Louisville’s Courier Journal, who slight stature enabled him to actually reach Collins with water, food and human contact. He earned a Pulitzer & $100 bonus for his efforts. Given today’s ‘false news’, mis-speaking, and 20-point banner-heads, (later apologized in 10-font in the obits section); the concept of media circus is as prevalent now as it became nine decades ago.
The musical reiterating of the story relies almost totally with the director and Sheridan’s Marc Richard stays as close as he can to the actual record. Richard utilizes his set designer Denise Lisson and lighting creator Sandra Marcroft to help tell the story and emphasize the hellish situation Collins faced being alone & immobile in total darkness. The craggy set with an ingenious access path that requires cast members to wall-climb; carefully follow a door overpass; crawl down and then creep an approach to Collins. Even such touches as early mine lighting systems are incorporated and cast members seated among the audience add echoes and occasional flashlight bursts to help create a sense of one actually being underground. Richard’s clever entry/exit methods as well as his character’s spotting are emphasized by directorial movement and pace, including slow motion. His Act I progress seems to almost drag (another reality) but post-interval, the tempo increases as does the anxieties of the protagonists on stage.
Naturally, it is Collins who owns the show. His portrayer- Ben Chiasson is continually on stage, whether actively mobile or motionless and stationary, pinned by a blocked leg. Chiasson is a highly-animated actor and exhibits such vitality in the early scenes that his stationary position is even more disheartening, both for him and the audience. An expressively flexible facial expression is mandatory and Chiasson has it – in spades.}
As the reporter Skeets Miller, Connor J. Lucas has the requisite physique of his character but more important, he displays all the empathy and unexpected courage of the original. His interplay with Chiasson is both dynamic and credible, as is his antagonism with the above-ground supposed rescuers; each with their own agenda. In some ways, the play could have been titled “Skeets”. Noticeable support characters are Collins siblings, Julia Vos is his sister Nellie, and Benjamin Doncom portrays his younger brother Homer. Jared Klein is the engineer whose conceit deteriorates the rescue effort and his role reading will evoke audience recollections of many such personalities. The challenging roles of father & step-mother are ably handled by Robyn Ord and Ruaridh MacDonald with the latter having to demonstrate diminishing mental ability to cope with his son’s predicament.
The songs are not memorable but they do perform a break from what as pure dialogue would be simply a tragic story rather than a followable plotline. The onstage but, almost hidden, six-piece orchestra is technically flawless and subdued. Conductor Ryan deSousa is also responsible for some time-critical sound effects such as the on-stage digging or rock-breaking. There is one noticeable anachronism; the (non-Skeet) reporters are shown using telephones; news updates were sent in by telegraph! “FLOYD COLLINS” will be at Sheridan’s Studio Theatre until Feb. 26th, 7:30 curtain.

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