When death rears its ugly, menacing head, there are those who cower in fear, those who face it tenaciously, and those who don’t have a choice in the matter. Trapped in a cave with little hope to survive, 1920s Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins represents the latter.
The musical based on Collins’ life digs deep into the psyche of a man close to death. Its music is brilliant, and its story of faith, family and love rings true, but the play is encapsulated by a ricocheting focus and underdeveloped characters. Befitting Floyd’s cave search for jewels and treasure, the play can simply be described as a quintessential diamond in the rough.
Ithaca College’s production of “Floyd Collins,” with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Tina Landau, transports the audience to post-World War I Kentucky in the small town of Cave City. The title character, Floyd (senior Parker Pogue), gets trapped in a tiny crevice 150 feet underground while searching for buried treasure. His story sparks a frenzy of journalistic sensationalism above ground, as people flock from miles away to capitalize on Floyd’s misery.
No stranger to the plight of a person stuck in the ground, director and associate professor Susannah Berryman — who played Winnie, a woman trapped in a mound of earth in the 2008 production of “Happy Days” at the Kitchen Theatre — intricately stages the show, almost perfectly capturing the chaos and poignancy of each moment. The call-and-answer songs between Floyd and his mentally deranged sister, Nellie (senior Melanie Beck), show the undying connection between siblings, even while separated by impenetrable ground.
The strength of “Floyd Collins” lies in Guettel’s spectacular score. Musical director Joel Gelpe’s finely tuned musical direction keeps every ballad on key and on tempo — a difficult task, as the bluegrass and contemporary music constantly shift gears, keys and mood. The evocative melodies whisk through the Clark Theatre with ease and bear resemblance to the intricacies of Stephen Sondheim’s overlapping talk-sing style heard in shows like “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd.”
The actors tackle this difficult music with fervor and commitment. Pogue’s powerful bari-tenor voice carries, even as he jumps and crawls across senior David Arsenault’s wood-planked set, simulating cave exploration. Sophomore Bruce Landry, who plays Floyd’s determined brother, Homer, shines vocally. The brothers’ song at the end of Act 1, “The Riddle Song,” is the best duet of the show and gives an inside look into the close relationship between the two.
But the weakness of the show is, unfortunately, the words that accompany these seemingly heartfelt ballads. When Floyd’s father Lee (senior Patrick Hunter) and stepmother Jane (sophomore Mary Malaney) sit down to reflect on the events, their duet doesn’t shed much light on the particularity of the family’s situation: their daughter’s being mentally ill and their son’s nearing death. “Ain’t much bacon in the pan or coffee in the pot / Runnin’ real low on firewood, but we sure as hell have us some family.” These routine lyrics could easily apply to many families, and Guettel’s lyrics leave the audience yearning to hear more. The music alone gets half the job done, but the lyrics do little to drive the point home.
However, the musical has enough energy and drive to please audiences. Even for the sake of hearing an exquisite selection of songs, everyone should take the chance to see “Floyd Collins.” The college’s theater department consistently undertakes gripping works of theater, each with its own flaws and triumphs, and their stories run in tandem with the outside world.
With booths waiting for patrons to donate to the Haiti relief effort after the show, the theater department reminds its attendees that art is meant to entertain, educate and enrich. And the experience continues long after the final bows; struggle is still known to those miles from Clark Theatre.
“Floyd Collins” will be showing until Saturday in Clark Theatre.