Floyd Collins

Floyd CollinsTrue confession: I wasn’t initially thrilled at the prospect of attending a two and half hour musical about a man trapped in a cave in rural Kentucky. To me, the premise was dubious at best. I’m glad to report that my hesitation was unfounded, Front Porch Theatrical’s production of the musical Floyd Collins is some of the strongest theater I’ve attended in Pittsburgh. All of the elements were there: strong cast, creative stage design, and a story well told.

This play is based on real events that transpired in 1925 in Cave City, Kentucky although the town is named Barren Country in the play. The show opens as freewheeling, big-dreaming Floyd Collins prospects for a cave to turn into a moneymaking tourist attraction. We see Floyd discover what could be a cash cow for his working poor family, the only catch is that when he attempts to leave the cave, soft limestone and pebbles fill in around his arms and legs, trapping him in the exit shaft. All of this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the play, the drama then unfolds both above and below ground as we witness Floyd, his siblings, his family, and friends, and mining professionals come to realize the Floyd’s entrapment cannot be easily remedied.

Ensemble singing “Remarkable”, featuring dancers/reporters Gena Simms (L), Mason Lewis (C) & Jordan Plutzer (R), also seen (L-R) Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins (in cave), Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (background), & Ryan Bergman (far R), as Skeets Miller
Ensemble singing “Remarkable”, featuring dancers/reporters Gena Simms (L), Mason Lewis (C) & Jordan Plutzer (R), also seen (L-R) Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins (in cave), Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (background), & Ryan Bergman (far R), as Skeets Miller

The play’s action spans the course of two weeks, and with each passing day Floyd’s struggle gains more notoriety, first as its covered by local reporter Skeets Miller, and then gaining national press thus attracting not only would be rescuers but also throngs of onlookers, ironically creating the kind of tourist spectacle that Floyd intended to bank on in the first place.

The stage design, I thought, was really unique. Utilizing multiple stepladders, so when characters wanted to visit Floyd we watched them scrabble to reach him conveyed the underground.

The weight of this play’s success was carried on the shoulders of actor Danny McHugh who played Floyd. He deftly conveyed the inner life of a trapped man with the understated emotionalism that the role called for. Another strong performance was by Lindsay Bayer in the role of Floyd’s sprite-like little sister. Her acting added levity to what could have gotten too depressing tonally; also of note was actor Ryan Bergman as the local reporter Skeets Miller who gave a moving portrayal of a journalist who befriends and attempts to rescue his subject.

Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (L) & Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins, on the Swing Tree in “The Riddle Song”
Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (L) & Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins, on the Swing Tree in “The Riddle Song”
Sandy Zwier, as Miss Jane (L) & Lindsay Bayer, as Nellie Collins, singing “Lucky”
Sandy Zwier, as Miss Jane (L) & Lindsay Bayer, as Nellie Collins, singing “Lucky”

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the music of the production. An eight-piece highly skilled orchestra accompanies the play, and the songs in the production were in the style of Americana/folk hybrid. This is a critique of the play’s author and not of the production itself, I believe there were perhaps a few too many songs in the production, the pacing felt slogged down in the first half. All of the actors had strong voices but the real stand out was Billy Wayne Coakley who played the minor character of Ed Bishop, Floyd’s friend. His best musical contribution came in the second act, and I felt my interest really snap to once Coakley started belting out his lines. I do hope that Front Porch Theatricals gives him a starring role in a production soon. I would love to hear an entire theatrical experience centered on his singing talent.

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have a company of the Front Porch Theatrical’s caliber. The artistic directors are to be commended for producing a play as unknown and challenging as Floyd Collins.

Special thanks to Front Porch Theatricals for complimentary press tickets. Photo credits: Martha Dollar Smith

Floyd Collins runs at the New Hazlett Theatre through September 4. For tickets and more information, click here.