Thomas Burns Scully
A few months ago I had the pleasure of riding the NQ up to Astoria and meeting the Ophelia Theatre Group for the first time. The play I saw, ‘The Fox and Boulder’ was lovely; a fantastic off-off Broadway piece that would have easily felt at home in a bigger space. I said as much in the review I at the time. I remember thinking, I hope they invite me back for the next one, these guys know what they’re doing. Well, time has come around and the next one has arrived, a revival of the 1996 Obie-Winning Musical ‘Floyd Collins’. And I have to say… it’s a bit of a let down.
It’s a difficult thing to say, because of how much I enjoyed and admired the former Californian theatre company’s last production, but unfortunately, yes, I didn’t really care for their ‘Floyd Collins’. The musical story of a man trapped underground and becoming the world’s first media sensation didn’t move me, particularly. That’s not to say it’s completely without merit, or that it’s completely unsalvageable, but there are serious technical problems with the work that need to be addressed. I can also confess to a certain personal bias against the material. I’ll get in to that in a moment, but first…
The biggest problem with the production, as I saw it on Friday, was the sound balance. A combination of the way the space is set up, mixed with their selective use of amplification meant that for about half of the musical numbers you couldn’t hear the singers clearly. Ophelia Theatre’s performance space is a converted function room in a rec-centre. They have done a great job making it in to at theatre, but the room wasn’t built with acoustics in mind. This wasn’t a problem when they were doing a straight play, but it’s limitations are all too apparent with a musical. The space did no favors to singers when they were performing, damping the sound of those with stronger voices and muting those with weaker voices. When singing alongside the full and amplified band there was a consistent loss of vocal clarity that made the lyrics range from indistinct to inaudible. As musical theatre sins go, this is among the deadly several. They either need their singers louder or their band quieter, because the sound situation as it stands kills the progression of the story in half the songs.
It’s a real shame, because there’s some great stuff being done here. The intimate two-handed scenes between Floyd (played by Landon Sutton) and his would be rescuers Homer (Logan Sutton) and Skeets Miller (Raymond Delaney) have real heart to them. When the show strips itself down to what is essentially a black-box scene-study the actors relax and really trust each other, and it makes for great drama. Mollie Craven as Nellie Collins has excellent musical theatre chops. I couldn’t hear the words over the band, but the notes she hit were sensational, as was the way she carried herself. Director Eric Ruiter has set the performance space up in a pleasantly dynamic fashion. The main performance area is a raised stage with a thrust out on bare floor, leading to a second smaller raised stage, creating a large, functional traverse space. Very exciting. And for all my complaints about the sound, one of my biggest compliments to the production is their use of live foley effects. Actors work using microphones around the room to create the sounds of dripping water, tumbling boulders and camera flash-bulbs. It manifests the world of Cave City, Kentucky beautifully. In a show that wasn’t plagued with the issues that ‘Collins’ is, it would have been a wonderful cherry on top. Unfortunately, this is not that show. Much as I would like it to be.
And now further complaints. Logan Sutton was stellar in ‘Fox and Boulder’, and he shines in moments of brilliance here, but he is also responsible for some of the show’s biggest musical missteps. In his first big solo song he sang some notes that were painfully off key. And very obviously so. There’s no other way of saying that. There were also some issues in the band, I couldn’t tell you for certain who was responsible without being in the middle of them, but there were several moments when either the piano player or the drummer went quite badly off time forcing everyone else to recover. I can forgive a lot of technical problems on a first night, but slips like this are frankly embarrassing. They are remediable, but they are the faire of a dress rehearsal and not a first night.
Apart from Ophelia’s work, I also have issues with the musical as a piece of text. I’m not convinced it’s a great piece of writing. The real life story of Collins is certainly interesting: the tale of the world’s first media circus, human interest, spirit of endurance, etc. but the framing of it within the writing here is scattered and unfocused. The musical can’t seem to make it’s mind up whether it’s an intimate portrait of a man who’s dream broke his body but not his spirit, or an allegory for the media’s distortion of events, or an intense psychological rescue thriller (a la ‘Buried’ or ‘127 Hours’), or any number of other things. Floyd Collins would appear to be the main character, but there are large sections of the show where he does nothing, and his character arc is largely nonexistent. From start to finish, he’s about the same, and while he is the axis on which the plot spins, he feels like more of a cypher for the concerns of the other characters. That would suggest that either Homer or Skeets (his main conversants) are the main character, but while they take turns being the eye of the audience, neither gives us any emotional satisfaction in the end. And the character who we finish with and who gets the last word is Floyd Collins, who, as we have already said, doesn’t change all that much. This lack of focus makes the show seem very long. And it is. Between Adam Guettel’s overabundance of songs for secondary characters and Tina Landau’s endless stream of poorly/never resolved subplots for same, the running time comes to just under three hours, with intermission, and it feels it. I loved the scenes between Floyd and others underground. Top notch acting work and good writing. I kept wanting more of that. That would be my ideal “Floyd Collins”, a one-room ‘No Exit’-style drama. One character stuck in a cave, only two people to talk to. You could do the whole thing in ninety minutes. As it stands, the show currently feels bloated and fuzzy. Not an ideal choice for black-box theatre.
So there we have it. I do still wish the best for Ophelia Theatre, but they have a lot to fix here, on a show which doesn’t deserve them. They really are lovely people. When it became apparent how warm the theatre was becoming before the show, they went out of the way to provide copious amounts of water and cool face-towels to every table, as well as doubling up the number of fans in the room. They care, and they obviously work hard, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I was really bored a lot of the time during ‘Floyd Collins’. I wish them better luck on the next one.
General Admission: $18
Sunday Evenings: Pay What You Can
Ticket Link: http://floydcollins2015.bpt.me