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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Laura Hitchcock
The shadows of Richard Rodgers, grandfather of the composer Adam Guettel, and Kirk Douglas, who starred in the movie inspired by the title character, are resoundingly exorcised in this mesmerizing musical. It's another amazing triumph for the small stage of West Coast Ensemble which has given us such spectacles as a wagon lumbering across the south in As I Lay Dying.
Director Richard Israel and choreographer Cate Caplin have made use of spaces you didn't know were there and brought to appalling life the Big Carnival (as the movie was called) that sprang up over the dank cave where Floyd Collins, "the greatest caver of his day", lay trapped by a fallen rock for two winter weeks in 1925. Collins, pursuing the American Dream, hoped to find a back door to Mamouth Caves which would make his family's fortune.
The reporter, Skeets Miller, the only man small enough to wiggle down to the cave and reach Collins, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story. In this production Skeets, touchingly portrayed by David Kaufman, is the most humane of the clumsy farmers and exploiters who literally dance on what is becoming Floyd's grave.
After an opening ensemble number, we meet Floyd in the upper left-hand corner of the theatre's left wall which has become part of the set. He crawls along it and through a remarkable maze of pale wood Evan A. Bartoletti has designed to fall with a thud to the bottom right-hand corner of the set. There Floyd, resoundingly portrayed by the appealing Bryce Ryness, sings on his back for most of the production. The clever fantasy number, "Riddle Song", has some of the show's most innovative lyrics. It is sung by Floyd and his brother Homer, played with both vocal and dramatic realism by Stef Tovar. Another fantasy song is Floyd's "Dream", in which the whole company appears in angelic white ensembles, for what Floyd dreams is an escape but is actually a goodbye.
The music draws on many different forms appropriate to the Kentucky hills -- from country rhythms and bluegrass to the atonal strains reminiscent of old English ballads. Though there are no "tunes like coins that jingle in your pocket", as someone described the melodies of Richard Rodgers' generation, Guettel's haunting score has illuminated his subject with the precision and focus of a coalminer's lantern. The wistful duet "Lucky" is beautifully sung by Floyd's sister Nellie, played with robust charm by Dana Reynolds, and his stepmother Miss Jane, given warmth and solidity by Andrea Covell. Floyd's touching final ballad, "How Glory Goes" is another highlight.
Billy Wilder, who directed the movie, would have been proud of the cynicism writer Tina Landau and composer Guettel found in Floyd's greedy father, played with dull nastiness by Larry Lederman;, the exploiter H. T. Carmichael (an overbearing Jerry Kernion); and the townspeople, whose heads are turned by the most exciting thing that's ever happened to them. This production does full justice to all the musical's remarkable values, as well as to its subject and its theme.
Editor's Note: For a song list check Elyse Sommer's review of the musical at Berkshire Theatre Festival. For a review of yet another production go here. As you can see, this moving show is slowly but surely reaching audiences in many parts of the country.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. >Click image to buy.
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