Los Angeles Theater Preview: FLOYD COLLINS (La Mirada Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on March 28, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


In 1917, Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins discovered Crystal Cave. Located in the same area as Mammoth Cave—the longest cave system known in the world—the site operated as a tourist attraction by his family. In 1925, while searching for a new entrance to the hundreds of miles of interconnected caves, Collins got his leg image015stuck in a narrow passageway 150 feet from the entrance. After a week, rescue efforts became increasingly difficult and dangerous when a passage used to reach Collins collapsed. With the advent of radio, the story and interviews with the trapped Collins by reporter “Skeets” Miller (who received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage) became nationwide news. The ensuing unprecedented media circus drew to the site tens of thousands of tourists, who bought food and souvenirs from hawkers. After around 14 days, Collins died of exposure, thirst, and starvation. The attention to the story created a positive outcome, however, spurring the creation of Mammoth Cave National Park in 1941.

In 1996, this tragic tale became a musical.

Josey McCoy (top) and Mark Whitten (below) star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS production of FLOYD COLLINS, directed by Richard Israel .Even more jaw-dropping than a musical wherein the protagonist sings while supine for most of the show is the score itself, a rare mix of invention, originality, audaciousness, and accessibility that makes it one of the freshest and most attention-grabbing American musical scores of the last 30 years. This rarely produced work is opening this weekend at La Mirada Theatre, and is directed by Richard Israel, whose 2005 extraordinary West Coast Ensemble production magically worked out the few kinks of Tina Landau’s libretto. Anyone even remotely interested in musical theater, or any modern music for that matter, must head down to La Mirada for this short run. Instead of using the huge theater’s proscenium seating, the audience will be placed in an intimate configuration on the stage. Part of its new ONSTAGE series, this limits seats to 199 per performance, which all but guarantees a sell-out.

Kim Huber and Mark Whitten star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS production of FLOYD COLLINS, directed by Richard IsraelThe composer/lyricist is Adam Guettel (rhymes with “metal”), grandson of Richard Rodgers, and the son of Mary Rodgers (Once Upon a Mattress). Guettel’s unconventional, risk-taking, complex, sophisticated score is difficult to categorize, as it goes from bluegrass to shifting rhythms to abstraction to a rip-roaring faux vaudeville number. In addition, Floyd Collins is uncommon because it doesn’t rotate around the topic of starry-eyed love. Instead, it is an allegorical tale of transcendence: Collins’ anguish ultimately causes purification, so beautifully rendered in “How Glory Goes” (sung by Audra McDonald on her same-titled 2000 CD). Because of these reasons, some of the critics and froth-favoring audiences were a bit stymied when it opened Off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizon, and it played only 25 performances (which doesn’t say much to me: Most Sondheim musicals lost money on Broadway).

Jonah Platt and Mark Whitten star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS production of FLOYD COLLINS, directed by Richard Israel .Fortunately, that’s all it took for people to notice that a profound shift in musical theater had occurred. New York Newsday: “One of the three or four truly great musical theatre scores of the decade.” Entertainment Weekly: “A vital new musical theatre writer has emerged.” Los Angeles Times: “Guettel is a composer for the new century.” Even the normally snarky John Simon wrote in New York Magazine: “This is the original and daring musical of our day…Floyd Collins reestablishes America’s sovereignty in a genre it created, but has since lost hold of. It is the modern musical’s true and exhilarating ace in the hole.” It also won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and an Obie for its score. (Guettel cemented himself in the Broadway firmament for The Light in the Piazza, the 2005 musical that recently had a glorious revival at South Coast Rep.)

FLOYD COLLINS at La Mirada Theatre - POSTERIf you don’t trust awards or critics (I’m sure I don’t), Stephen Sondheim said in 1999 that he considered Floyd Collins one of the best musicals written in the last twenty-five years, and his list of “Songs I Wish I’d Written” includes “The Riddle Song,” which closes Act I.

Prior to Sweeney Todd (1979), the LP of which never left my turntable, there were many original cast recordings which sent an electric shock through my soul—that breathtaking moment when every sense is awakened upon hearing something that was unlike anything that came before. Since Les Misérables (1985, the only British Invasion musical that made me sit up and take notice), I can count on one hand the new scores that raised the hair on my neck. One was Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party (2000). Another was Floyd Collins. Guettel’s unpredictable score, brilliantly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin as if Stravinsky wrote American bluegrass, utilizes Appalachian instruments such as harmonica, fiddle, banjo, and acoustic guitar. Musical Director David O, one of the theater’s best, will be on hand at La Mirada to bring this unique score to life.

Mark Whitten stars as Floyd Collins in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS production of FLOYD COLLINS, directed by Richard Israel.The cast features a slew of our best musical theater artists: Mark Whitten as Floyd, Kim Huber as his sister Nellie, Jonah Platt as his brother Homer, Josey McCoy as “Skeets” Miller, and Victoria Strong as Miss Jane. Also featured are Gary Lee Reed, Jay Donnell, Matt Magnusson, Larry Lederman, Joe Hart, Michael Haller, Zach Spound, and Michael Byrne.

photos by Michael Lamont

Mark Whitten and Kim Huber star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS production of FLOYD COLLINS, directed by Richard IsraelFloyd Collins
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30
Friday at 8:00
Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00
Sunday at 2:00 and 7:00 (no 7:00 on April 13)
scheduled to end on April 13, 2014
for tickets, call (562) 944-9801
or visit www.lamiradatheatre.com

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