Big Fish

big fishThere is a reason we tell each other stories that go beyond a recollection of the facts. We like to think we’re our own historians, and sometimes we are, but we don’t make myths as a matter of record. The stories we make into legends capture something about who we are that our receipts never could.

Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Big Fish is about a man whose realities and fantasies may as well be one in the same. We follow Edward Bloom (Billy Hartung), a traveling salesman who lives his life like it’s the lost epilogue to Homer’s The Odyssey. He comes home after a trip to tell his son Will (Mario Williams) the story of how he taught a man how to fish via dancing – specifically, by using the fabled Alabama Stomp. We flash back to that moment, with Edward patiently hearing out a fisherman afraid for his starving family, and a song begins. The music soars as Edward tap dances entire schools of fish into the sky, and his dumbfounded companion, in awe, begins to stomp along as the waters rage around them and fish hail down onto the earth.

Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony
Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony

“If you give a man a fish,” Edward tells his son, “he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, you feed his soul!”

The man, the fish, and the music fade, and there is a beat of silence. Will immediately asks, “what the hell does that mean?”

This is the push and pull of Big Fish: idealism vs. realism. Decades go by, and Will (now played by Matt Calvert) is a reporter engaged to be married to a fellow journalist, Josephine (Hope Anthony). Will meets with Edward before the wedding and practically begs him not to tell any stories or give any toasts. All it takes is this conversation to give us an enormous amount of context for their relationship. For Edward, the world seems to naturally orbit him, and it puts his head in the clouds; Will’s feet are planted firmly in the ground, and he’s still waiting for his father to come down to his level. The question is: are either of these men capable of meeting in the middle?

Front Porch’s production is as emphatic in its energy as its lead character. Big Fish is a series of explosive revelries and fantastic characters, and the potential for the show to become bittersweet is swept away by its sheer joy for life.

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom

Just like the characters onstage,  we the audience are yanked into Edward’s orbit. Billy Hartung’s performance isn’t exuberant, but his ability to take in the magic of his world as a matter, of course, can be invigorating. There’s a moment in this where he is shot out of a cannon by a werewolf onto the college campus Sandra (Kristiann Menotiades), his future wife, is attending – there’s, uh, a lot going on there, but it makes sense in context, I promise – and when he lands he gets almost immediately to flirting with her. Why not?

The show is directed by Spencer Whale, who seems keen on imbuing the slice of life portions of the musical with as much character as its colorful fantasies. The cast is as effective musically as they are dramatically, and there are some memorable moments: Kristiann Monotiades leads a fun number during a dance audition that shifts suddenly into a slow-motion meet cute, and I was struck by her ability to be simultaneously intimate and energetic. Elizabeth Boyke’s Jenny Hill is, at first, a one-note object of affection for Edward, but she becomes much more return during the play’s final moments, and in just one scene is able to remind us of the difficult humanity of the narrative through her performance alone.

Big Fish is a musical with a purpose, and so it is the best kind of musical. Newcomers to the genre uniformly pose the same question after their first show: “but why did it have to be a musical?” Screenwriter John August and musician Andrew Lippa’s original work blends fantasy and musicality so easily with the juxtaposition between theater and dance, that it begs the opposite question: is there any reason why this shouldn’t be a musical?

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom

The world itself also deserves praise. Gianni Downs’ set design is rustic, yet vibrant, and complements Big Fish‘s elevated Americana really well. Even with the show’s aesthetically patchwork quality, it never descends into ‘indie-film of the moment’ design. It’s got a sense of handcrafted wonder to it, but at the same time feels like it’s built on sturdier stuff, both literally and artistically.

There are a few flies in the soup, though, especially in the larger narrative of the show. We learn almost immediately in the first act that Will is about to have a child. Considering how Edward and Will are such obvious foils for one another as father and son, the narrative instinct to make Will’s child a vessel for whatever lesson Will is going to learn is jarring in how direct it is. For as much joy the show builds, that’s just too saccharine of a plot point to hit the mark, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact that it already has a pretty great framing device in Edward’s penchant for skipping stones.

That said, Big Fish‘s conclusion is well earned. Will demands a certain amount of party-pooping by nature of his character, but Matt Calvert allows us to believe in his ability to change and grow. By the time we’re in the middle of one more new story from Edward, we’re already so won over that we’re willing to follow him just about anywhere.

Front Porch’s latest pulses with the heartbeat of the form, and is an easy recommendation to most any kind of audience.

Big Fish runs at the New Hazlett Theater through August 27. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Martha D. Smith

PITR’s Top 5 Picks for Summer 2017

Let’s dive right into our Top 5 shows we’re looking forward to this summer!

Marcus Stevens (2)#5 – An Act of God – Pittsburgh Public Theater: A relatively new play, premiering on Broadway in 2015, An Act of God is a one-act comedy that originally started out as a series of tweets that evolved into the book of which the play was adapted from. Point Park University graduate Marcus Stevens plays God, joined by his sidekicks: angels Gabriel and Michael (John Shepard and Tim McGeever), in this comedy opening at the Pittsburgh Public June 9. For tickets and more information click here. 

#4 – Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play – 12 Peers Theater: Once you catch 12 Peer’s current production of Thom Pain: Based on Mr. Burns ImageNothing starring Pittsburgh’s own Matt Henderson, we’re sure you’ll be itching to see what else they have to offer. Opening August 3, Mr. Burns shoots us some years into the future after the apocalypse where we meet a handful of survivors trying to recreate a particular episode of “The Simpsons”. Fast forwarding into the future for Act 2, and even further for Act 3,  these reenactments become main forms of entertainment and eventually myths decades later. For tickets and more information, click here. 

#3 – Hot Metal Musicals – Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh (MTAP):Since Email-Blast-Image-c.PG-Web1-copyits creation, MTAP has set out to help create and promote new musicals and the artists creating them in Pittsburgh. The incubator was established in 2011 by Erik Schark and is now currently led by executive director Stephanie Riso, managing director Jeanne Drennan, and advisor Steve Cuden. The first Hot Metal Musicals showcase in 2015 was one of our first major events of that year, and after seeing the talents Pittsburgh had to offer then, we’re sure this year’s showcase on July 17 will knock our socks off. For tickets and more information click here. 

#2 – Momentum Festival – City Theatre Company: City Theatre, known as yt17-momentum-featurePittsburgh’s home for new plays, delivers on their promise to keep things fresh and new again this year by finishing out their season with their annual page-to-stage festival: Momentum. Featuring 5 different staged readings, this year’s lineup will include not one, but two shows in progress that will be fully produced in their 2017-2018 season. Hop in for a meet and greet and a staged reading this weekend starting June 1! For more information, click here!

18556456_10155486793559873_589745343035013449_o#1 – WordPlay – Bricolage Production Company: Sure, for the second year in a row, we’ve named Bricolage’s storytelling show WordPlay the #1 show we’re looking forward to this summer. But this time, WordPlay is no ordinary WordPlay. This time, Bricolage as team up with PERSAD CENTER, the nation’s second oldest licensed mental health counseling center specifically created to serve the LGBTQ community. Featuring tunes by Tracksploitation and stories by Nyri Bakkalian, Brian Broome, Cindy Howes, kelly e. parker and Ciora Thomas. And, as usual, hosted by Creator and Co-Producer Alan Olifson. Don’t miss out on this special edition WordPlay this weekend, starting June 2. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Summer Preview 2017

Summer Logo

A Letter from the Editor,

I would like to wish a happy unofficial start of summer to our marvelous readers! Because of you, we made it through another year here at Pittsburgh in the Round! As a special treat, we’ve put together one of our best season previews yet, including updates from old friends like MTAP and the Pittsburgh CLO, new friends like Split Stage Productions, and not one, but two Artist Spotlights!

Summertime is one of the busiest times of year for the Pittsburgh theater community, making it one of the busiest seasons for us here at Pittsburgh in the Round. There will be no shortage of reviews and articles and you may even see a few PITR exclusives!

With the release of this Summer Preview 2017, we’d also like to announce our latest Site Sponsor, the newly renamed Pittsburgh Festival Opera (formerly the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh). To find out more about their upcoming season, keep scrolling! If you or your theater or business would like to be featured in any of our advertising spots, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@pghintheround.com!

Our team here keeps on growing so we’ll have plenty of content to keep you busy this summer. We would love to take this opportunity to thank all of you who continue to read the content we work so hard to bring you, engage with us on social media, and support all of these local theaters and companies that help the arts grow and thrive in Pittsburgh.

Here’s to another great summer,

Mara E. Nadolski
Editor in Chief, Pittsburgh in the Round


Let’s dive right into our Top 5 shows we’re looking forward to this summer!

Marcus Stevens (2)#5 – An Act of God – Pittsburgh Public Theater: A relatively new play, premiering on Broadway in 2015, An Act of God is a one-act comedy that originally started out as a series of tweets that evolved into the book of which the play was adapted from. Point Park University graduate Marcus Stevens plays God, joined by his sidekicks: angels Gabriel and Michael (John Shepard and Tim McGeever), in this comedy opening at the Pittsburgh Public June 9. For tickets and more information click here. 

#4 – Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play – 12 Peers Theater: Once you catch 12 Peer’s current production of Thom Pain: Based on Mr. Burns ImageNothing starring Pittsburgh’s own Matt Henderson, we’re sure you’ll be itching to see what else they have to offer. Opening August 3, Mr. Burns shoots us some years into the future after the apocalypse where we meet a handful of survivors trying to recreate a particular episode of “The Simpsons”. Fast forwarding into the future for Act 2, and even further for Act 3,  these reenactments become main forms of entertainment and eventually myths decades later. For tickets and more information, click here. 

#3 – Hot Metal Musicals – Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh (MTAP): Since Email-Blast-Image-c.PG-Web1-copyits creation, MTAP has set out to help create and promote new musicals and the artists creating them in Pittsburgh. The incubator was established in 2011 by Erik Schark and is now currently led by executive director Stephanie Riso, managing director Jeanne Drennan, and advisor Steve Cuden. The first Hot Metal Musicals showcase in 2015 was one of our first major events of that year, and after seeing the talents Pittsburgh had to offer then, we’re sure this year’s showcase on July 17 will knock our socks off. For tickets and more information click here. 

#2 – Momentum Festival – City Theatre Company: City Theatre, known as yt17-momentum-featurePittsburgh’s home for new plays, delivers on their promise to keep things fresh and new again this year by finishing out their season with their annual page-to-stage festival: Momentum. Featuring 5 different staged readings, this year’s lineup will include not one, but two shows in progress that will be fully produced in their 2017-2018 season. Hop in for a meet and greet and a staged reading this weekend starting June 1! For more information, click here!

18556456_10155486793559873_589745343035013449_o#1 – WordPlay – Bricolage Production Company: Sure, for the second year in a row, we’ve named Bricolage’s storytelling show WordPlay the #1 show we’re looking forward to this summer. But this time, WordPlay is no ordinary WordPlay. This time, Bricolage as team up with PERSAD CENTER, the nation’s second oldest licensed mental health counseling center specifically created to serve the LGBTQ community. Featuring tunes by Tracksploitation and stories by Nyri Bakkalian, Brian Broome, Cindy Howes, kelly e. parker and Ciora Thomas. And, as usual, hosted by Creator and Co-Producer Alan Olifson. Don’t miss out on this special edition WordPlay this weekend, starting June 2. Tickets and more information can be found here

If musicals are more your style, don’t worry, George has our 5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss this Summer here. 

Learn a little more about the people you’ve been hearing about for all these years in our Artist Spotlight series. This time around we’ve got two for you! Get the scoop on costume designer Tony Sirk and musical theater actor Quinn Patrick Shannon. 

Our opera expert George is always a regular at the Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s summer shows so he’s got the inside scoop on their upcoming season hereThey’ve even commissioned a new opera they’ll be debuting this year, Nicole went a step further and got us some more information on the new show A Gathering of Sons. 

Throughline Theatre Company has a new home and a new season to tell us about! Ringa even got a sneak peak on their 3rd show, check it out here

If our Top 5 Musicals article wasn’t enough to meet your musical needs, George caught up with Split Stage Productions and the Pittsburgh CLO!

Kinetic Theatre Company has some fun planned for us this summer and fall, check out Stephen’s preview here. 

In preparation of MTAP’s upcoming Hot Metal Musicals this July, reacquaint yourself with the Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh here. 

And last, but not least, a group of young Pittsburgh artists have come together to produce a cabaret night to showcase female talent in the industry to support Planned Parenthood, find out more here. 


 

Missing something? Here are some review highlights from the last few months!

Watch: A Haunting by Real/Time Interventions

The Philadelphia Story at Little Lake Theatre

La Rondine by Undercroft Opera

Anything Goes at McKeesport Little Theater

Falstaff by Resonance Works

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Prime Stage

Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

Sive at PICT Classic Theatre

Tarzan by Pittsburgh Musical Theatre

Wife U at Carnegie Mellon Universtiy

The Summer King at the Pittsburgh Opera

What’s Missing?  by Corningworks

4.48 Psychosis at off the WALL

Collaborators by Quantum Theatre

Baltimore at the University of Pittsburgh

Sweet Charity at the Pittsburgh Playhouse

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson by the Duquesne Red Masquers

Who’s Afraid of iVirginia Woolf? by Cup-A-Jo Productions

5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Summer: 2017 Edition

Our 2017 Summer Musical Preview features a mixed bag of musicals from the interactive Clue, the zany Spamalot to three “serious” musicals exploring life’s purpose; Avenue Q, Pippin and Big Fish.

18766423_1366720196752718_7747244441950438655_oDo you like board games? Then Clue is for you! This interactive musical is based on the popular game of the same name. The plot revolves around solving the murder of Mr. Brody at a mansion that is occupied by several possible suspects.

The audience deduces the solution from clues given throughout the performance. The audience chooses from 216 possibilities incorporating the potential murderers, weapons and rooms! Only one hard-nosed female detective is qualified to unravel the merry mayhem. Even after the culprit confesses, a surprise twist awaits.

Clue: The Musical by the Summer Company. Directed by Justin Sines at the new Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University. Performances run June 15th through the 25th

Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 seniors, $5 students available at the Box Office or online here.

spamalotIf Stage 62’s rollicking production of Peter and the Starcatcher is any indication of their ability to do comedy, then their take on Monty Python’s Spamalot is bound to be a hysterical funfest. Spamalot borrows from, well honestly it actually rips off, Monty Python and the Holy Grail transforming the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable into a classic Broadway musical. Of course there are showgirls, knights, cows and fabulous French people. Did I mention the killer rabbits?

Spamalot presented by Stage 62. Performances Thursday to Saturday, Jul. 20th to 22nd and 27th to 29th at 8 p.m., Sunday Matinees on July 23rd and 30th at 2 p.m.

Laugh until it hurts at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA

Tickets:  Adults: $20, Students/Seniors: $15 available here.

pippinThe Tony Award winning Pippin is the story of a young prince and heir to the throne, who is searching for his own “corner of the sky” as told by a traveling troupe of actors led by the cunning and charming Leading Player. After he returns from college, Pippin searches for a fulfilling purpose in life. The Leading Player encourages Pippin to experiment: dabble in bloody battles, go for licentious and lusty sexual entanglements, and try out savvy political maneuvers. Despite his adventures, Pippin discovers that finding one’s life significance is really way more complicated than he thought. There are as many interpretations as to the shows meaning, as there are productions. Watch and see if you can figure it out.

Carnegie Mellon alumni Stephen Schwartz wrote the now classic show tunes originally while at CMU as a student production. Rumor has it not one word or note from the original CMU production made it to the Broadway version!

Pippin is in residence the Theatre Factory in Trafford, PA with performances July 7th through 23rd at 8 p.m. and Sunday the 17th and 23rd at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Adults $18, Seniors & Students $16, visit www.theatrefactory.com or call 412-374-9200

ave qImagine if Sesame Street was for adults. This is the premise of Avenue Q, a place where puppets are friends, Monsters are good and life lessons are learned. Avenue Q is the winner of three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. The show tells the story of Princeton, a lad just out of college who moves to a sketchy apartment way out on Avenue Q.

Instead of “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1” and “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, Avenue Q serves up “We’re all a Little Bit Racist”, “The Internet is for Porn”, “It Sucks to be Me”, and I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”. Princeton and his newfound Avenue Q friends, all who grew up as unique people; searching for jobs, dates and their ever-elusive purpose in life.

The Alumni Theater Company is comprised of all Black performers.  Like most musicals, Avenue Q was not written by or for Black people. According to Alumni Founding Director Hallie Donner  “The cast and creative team are working together to bring meaning and relevance to this performance from the perspective of young Black Americans.”

Donner says “Avenue Q is about twenty-something’s finding purpose in life. That couldn’t be more relevant to us. Yet the show’s casual attitude of “just relax” and let life happen to you and it will all work out is very much a viewpoint created through the lens of white privilege.  We look forward to challenging audiences with our take on this theme.”

The Alumni Theatre Company’ production of Avenue Q is located at the New Hazlett Theatre in the North Side with performances on July 28th, 29th, and 30th. For tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11504  

big fishFront Porch Theatricals is excited to put Big Fish in the directing hands of Pittsburgh native Spencer Whale, a vibrant young storyteller and Cornell University graduate.

Big Fish is a magnificent whopper of a tale that centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lives life to its fullest… and then some! Edward tells incredible, larger-than-life stories that thrill everyone around him. His adult son, Will, is no longer amused by his father’s fantastical tales and insists on a rational rather than an exaggerated account of his father’s life. When Edward’s health declines and Will learns that he and his wife, Josephine, will have a son of their own, Will decides to find out his father’s “true” life story, once and for all.

Big Fish is a heartfelt, powerful, and truly magical musical about fathers, sons, and the stories that we use to define our identities.  Big Fish is a show that’s richer, funnier and BIGGER than life itself.

This will be Whales’s return to musical theatre in Pittsburgh after he won a Gene Kelly Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role when he was a student at North Hills High School before he attended Cornell University. Billy Hartung plays Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades is his wife Sandra.

Big Fish by Front Porch Theatricals at the new Hazlett Theatre on the North Side. Performances run August 18th to 27th. Tickets: Adults: $30 online; $35 at the door; Students, Groups and Artists; $24 and are on sale now on ShowClix! https://www.showclix.com/event/big-fish

It looks like we are in for an interesting Summer Musical season again this year! Enjoy.

We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #SummerwithPITR.

And don’t forget to sign up for our email blasts here. 

Violet

Print

Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage.

Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical.

This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014.

Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems.

Bus Ride 4Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser).

The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak).

Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.

Magazine Beauty

When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination.

I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact.

At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work.

Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”.

Healing Meeting 3

Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own.

Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away.

Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime.

At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed.

Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”

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.