FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Since 2001 Boiler Room Theatre has worked hard to earn its well-deserved reputation for presenting engaging musical fare. They have enjoyed challenges and taken risks, and many of those risks have paid off. They may have taken perhaps their biggest risk with the complex music for Floyd Collins, and that risk has paid off handsomely.
The show that was inspired by a real-life 1925 cave-exploring tragedy in Kentucky was once one of modern theater’s elusive legends – it only had 25 performances Off-Broadway when it premiered in 1996 and rights were hard to come by in the years that followed. But from the beginning there were signs the show was something special: Even the often caustic critic John Simon wrote in New York Magazine that the piece was “the original and daring musical of our day” that “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.” Tours, well-received London and Shaw Festival mountings and other revivals have slowly but surely made Floyd Collins a musical that lovers of the form must see.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to note that the show’s music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel (Tina Landau, a playwright and director that is well-respected in the American theater community, wrote some lyrics and the book as well and directed the original Playwrights Horizons production). The grandson of composer Richard Rogers is now better known for his Tony Award-winning work (Best Score and Best Orchestrations) on The Light in the Piazza, but before that he was mentored by Stephen Sondheim (who called his work “dazzling” in a 2000 New York Times feature) . He’s stated that his influences beyond Sondheim include Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten and Stevie Wonder; with the score for Floyd Collins, which provides elements of bluegrass and Americana along with shades of Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and others, his genius for combining such diverse musical strands is apparent.
If you’re wondering why I took you through the lengthy book report it’s because I want it firmly understood by those who haven’t seen this production that it is a musical theater Everest. Why? Because when you see BRT’s lovely and haunting production you could be tempted to think it came easy to gifted performers like Geoff Davin, Will Sevier, Jennifer Richmond and their colleagues. I didn’t attend any rehearsals but I didn’t have to in order to know these folks worked very, very hard to bring us this remarkable but daunting show; the seemingly perpetual dissonance of the score alone makes Floyd Collins a formidable ascent for the even the best performers.
Davin’s dramatic dive into the cave that led to Collins’ doom begins with a lengthy three-number set that showcases not only his fine and flexible singing voice but his adroit acting skills. He’s been a pleasure to watch in such shows as Boiler Room’s excellent revival of Rocky Horror Show and Studio Tenn’s exquisite rendition of Big River, so it’s not surprising that he’s terrific as the title character of this show. But as good actors do he does surprise us by making each moment one of discovery; nothing is old and nothing feels as if it’s been thought of, spoken, sung or done before. I hope I have the privilege of continuing to see his work for many years to come.
His castmates are no less enthralling. Sevier plays his brother Homer with the kind of nuance that allows acting artifice to leave and dramatic reality to find a happy home with all of us lucky enough to watch. And his powerful duet with Davin on “The Riddle Song” that ends Act I is not only one of this show’s highlights; it’s a stage moment that I wish could be captured and held forever. Well, as long as I have the ability to recall I will have it to savor, and that’s a positive prospect indeed.
I’ve gushed about Richmond’s abilities for a long time; like fellow cast member Megan Chambers I don’t think there’s anything on stage – classical, contemporary, tragedy, comedy, musical, non-musical – she can’t do well. Her performance as Floyd’s sister Nellie further confirms my bias; in more than one instance, but particularly a number like Act II’s “Through the Mountain,” her characterization takes our heart and holds it so sweetly. If we go to theater for anything we go for the emotional connections we make there, and Richmond is masterful in this show and others when it comes to making those connections.
Michael Adcock (who provides an endearing portrait of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Burke “Skeets” Miller), Bryce Conner, Flynt Foster, Lisa Gillespie, Phil Perry, Neely Green, Josh Lowery, Scott Stewart, Darci Wantiez, Daniel Bissel and Dan Zeigler make up the rest of the acting ensemble. All have provided fine work on this and other stages in the past, but they deserve mention here because together their voices and acting make this production incredibly moving.
Director Laura Skaug deserves far more credit than my poor writing can convey for bringing this all together. She and Musical Director Jamey Green (along with fellow musicians Rick Malkin, Doug Bright, Dale Herr, Charis Mackrell and Erika Stanley), Scenic and Lighting Designer Corbin Green, Costumer Katie Delaney, Properties Designer Katie Gant and Stage Manager Jayme Smith have added their stellar talents to this production too, and Floyd Collins shines all the more because of them.
There were some microphone problems opening night – with the strong voices in this show I thought they could simply turn them off most of the time in BRT’s intimate space because hearing them naturally even with the music was not difficult – but upon reflection I know that has occurred not only at BRT in the past but elsewhere. As a former theater actor/producer/director I had more than one experience which convinced me that even the best technical preparations are no match for the mysterious gremlins that seem to delight in screwing up mics during public performances that have worked just fine in rehearsals and tech. Being the pros they are the folks at BRT kept the show moving right along, and the delight it provided far outweighed any audio glitches.
I hope many theater lovers will see this show before its run ends May 4. Boiler Room Theatre should be quite proud of its Floyd Collins, and we can be quite grateful for their hard work on a show that easily provides us with a remarkable experience.
Boiler Room Theatre’s production of Floyd Collins continues through May 4 at its theater (230 Franklin Rd., Bldg. Six of the Factory at Franklin). Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p m. April 28 and 8 p.m. May 2. Tickets ($27; $25 seniors ages 60 and older and students ages 13 through college with valid ID; $21 for children ages 3-12; Matinee prices are $2 less respectively; Tuesday admission is two for $27) and more information is available by calling (615) 794-7744 or visiting www.boilerroomtheatre.com.
*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and Boiler Room Theatre.