Ace in the Hole – a review of “Floyd Collins”

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By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

At the beginning of the 20th Century, a happy-go-lucky spelunker Floyd Collins (Danny McHugh) is literally and figuratively in over his head when he discovers a giant cave in “Floyd Collins.” While attempting to find a new route to a system of interconnected caves in rural Kentucky, Collins became trapped in a narrow passageway.

Collaborators Tina Landau (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) take a true story of a Kentucky cave explorer and set it to music. In 1925, the event sparked national attention as America awaited news about Floyd’s rescue.

Just as in real life, the rescue operation is a media circus. Unlike the true events that inspired the story; a chorus of reporters sing and dance about the unfolding tragedy.

It’s an ensemble piece with very distinct, nuanced personalities. Floyd, his brother Homer (Nathan Salstone), his sister Nellie (Lindsay Bayer) and journalist Skeets Miller (Ryan Bergman) each go on their own heroic journey. Lantern-jawed Floyd and his charismatic younger brother stand front and center for most of the play. Meanwhile, Miller, the slim newsman,  goes to the central Kentucky to report the story, and becomes an integral part of the rescue team.  While Nellie is on the periphery of the events, pining away for her trapped sibling.

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Sandy Zwier (Miss Jane, patriach Lee Collins’ second wife) sits with Lindsay Bayer (Nellie Collins) as Nellie belts out, “Lucky.” Photo by Martha Dollar Smith.

The Collins’ clan’s god-fearing father Lee (Daniel Krell) and Henry St. George Tucker Carmichael (Jonathan Visser) have antagonistic tendencies, but they are also trying to save the day; though their methods are at odds with the other members of the Collins clan.

“Floyd Collins” is a rare piece of theater. Calling it “a musical about a man trapped in a cave” is a wince-inducing logline, but “Floyd Collins” transcends its elevator pitch. The show works because of its superb cast.

McHugh is charming and affable as the titular, trapped hero. He manages to sing, yodel and dig his way into our hearts. In a powerful moment, McHugh and Salstone reminisce about their childhood, reliving the moments from their boyhood. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching.

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Nathan Salstone, as (Homer Collins) and Danny McHugh (Floyd Collins) swinging on the Swing Tree in “The Riddle Song.” Photo by Martha Dollar Smith.

Bergman’s Skeets Miller is our everyman. We see this world through his eyes. He’s an excellent choice for the character.

Krell’s Lee is a broken man marred by his beliefs. Visser is masterful and commanding as Carmichael. Both men are powerful performers.

Much to director Rachel M. Stevens’ credit, there isn’t a bad performance in the show.  Under Stevens’ deft direction, “Floyd Collins” is perfection. There is some exquisite choreography from Alivia Owen (pay close attention to the precise, balletic movements of Mason Lewis).

Doug Levine’s orchestra is magical, but there is some incredible a cappella yodeling in the show. For the record, this reviewer never thought he would ever become a fan of yodeling. Front Porch Theatricals’ production of “Floyd Collins” is flawless and you should go, unless you’re stuck in a hole.

– MB

“Floyd Collins” runs until September 4 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here.

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