Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Floyd Collins" at Stumptown Stages

I adore Adam Guettel's score for The Light in the Piazza, so I was very excited to see Floyd Collins, his only other full musical, I believe.

You can definitely tell the two shows are buy the same guy. The music shows the same love of the human voice (especially the soprano register, which seems quite unpopular nowadays), of rich harmonies, of long held notes, and of abandoning words when emotion gets too overwhelming. In Floyd Collins, set in 1925 Kentucky, they yodel; there's even a fantastic yodel-echo-fugue when Floyd explores a cave and hears his own voice bounce back at him.

Guettel also can write a nifty comic song when he wants to: the highlight of the show is a jazzy number for a trio of sleazy journalists, in three-part-harmony with accompanying dance. Other good numbers: the energetic country song "Tween a Rock an' a Hard Place," the folky "Ballad of Floyd Collins," the "Riddle Song" that displays the love between Floyd and his brother Homer (and appeared on Sondheim's list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written") and the finale "How Glory Goes." I was really impressed by the sincerity of this last number: in it, a dying man sings to God, accepting his own mortality and wondering about Heaven. It's truly refreshing, in an era when atheism is trendy and irony is rampant, to hear a song that really engages with spirituality.

Despite all these good songs, I still prefer Piazza. The rest of the numbers in Floyd Collins are not very memorable, maybe because the musical has a weaker story. One of the things that I loved about Piazza was that you never knew what the characters would do next. Floyd Collins, on the other hand, has the plotline: Caver gets trapped. Other people try to save him. They fail.

The struggles between the other characters about how best to rescue Floyd are often perfunctory--his father, a mining-company engineer, and the aforementioned sleazy journalists are all one-dimensional bad guys. And the idea that Floyd's sister Nellie, who has spent time in a mental institution, is really wise and spiritual instead of insane, strikes me as offensive. One thing I liked is that the first journalist on the scene, Skeets Miller, isn't the sleazy guy you'd expect. (Pop culture posits that all journalists from the 1920s were fast-talking, greedy wiseguys.) Instead, he comes to love Floyd, and feels guilty that he provoked a media circus.

The Stumptown Stages production made good use of a few simple props--ladders and benches--to evoke Floyd's cave and the other setting. Kirk Mouser's baritone and Todd Tschida's tenor blended beautifully on the "Riddle Song"--in fact all the cast members did well with this difficult score. I feel that Floyd Collins might be better as a song cycle than a book musical, but I applaud Guettel and Landau for writing, and Stumptown for producing, a serious, sincere musical about a man in extremity.

P.S.: Evidently Floyd was exploring caves as part of the "Kentucky Cave Wars." I wish a little more of this background had made it into the show.

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