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Dangerously beautiful 'Floyd Collins' at UCO

There are those remarkable shows that defy categorization—the ones that are neither a tragedy nor a musical comedy nor definably on a line between the two. One such outlier is “Floyd Collins,” with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau. The beautifully structured script with its evocative and demanding music tells the (true) story of a man who followed his dreams to their inevitable conclusion; the story of a family under stress and in turmoil; and the story of what publicity, fame, and ambition can do to destroy lives they are supposedly trying to save.

Four performances of “Floyd Collins” were offered at Mitchell Hall on the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma, staged by the School of Music and Central Musical Theatre in the College of Fine Arts and Design. The show ran April 23-26, and it was extraordinary.

A group of young actors, under the painterly direction of Shannon Hurleigh and music director Marian Searle, delivered an understated yet bravura performance. The initial barriers to suspension of disbelief—young actors trying to deliver age convincingly and a set that abstractly suggested the construct of a cave—faded into their proper insignificance as the story unfolded over a score that was both modern and still entirely appropriate to the Kentucky hills of 1925. The songs—sometimes almost traditional with guitar and banjo, sometimes with a contemporary chamber orchestra—have the quality of opera in that they are monologs or conversations that tell parts of the story; they are never interruptions or diversions.

The strong ensemble cast built a community of men struggling with the unremitting strain of raising a living from the earth and the women who struggle with them. Farmers, barely scratching a crop, and cavers, searching for a new Mammoth Cave to attract tourists, are at odds with one another and at the same time an interlaced community. “Outlanders” are not welcome to comment or criticize, but of course in the story locals and outlanders do both.

Within this community, Floyd Collins, played Friday with warmth and passion by William Herndon, begins his explorations under ground with a triad of songs about his desire to find a great cave that can support his family and win him the approval of his father. His triumphant discovery of what will come to be known as Great Sand Cave has an underscoring of tension, and indeed, his journey back to the surface to share his find sets the stage for the remainder of the story. In this production, Floyd was on stage for the entire show, much of the time as a rather grim part of the set—we were never allowed to forget him. The part requires a physically expressive actor who is a solid singer and who has the skill to convey strong emotion from an almost static position. Herndon is one such young actor, and he delivered the role with skill and confidence; he has the gift of being completely present while not drawing focus from other action.

Nate Stukey played Floyd’s brother Homer with strength and conviction. Determined to defend and rescue his younger brother, Homer struggles against his father’s disapproval of both brothers, which sets up one layer of tension and tale. The elderly Lee Collins was played credibly by the far from elderly Aaron Gooden. The palpable strain between Stukey and Gooden helped to convey both son and father convincingly, and the ethereal earthiness of Emily J. Pace as Floyd and Homer’s sister Nellie adds a layer of pastel to the harsh black-and-white each man sees. The uncomfortable family these characters define provided clarity for other conflict both inside and outside the community.

The everyman, the character who invites the audience into the situation, is the first reporter on the scene, Skeets Miller. Nicholas Winterrowd delivered a Skeets who was both a truly tangible doorway for us and a man genuinely changed by the circumstances of 18 days in 1925. Neither a local nor an outlander, but rather a little of both, Skeets gives voice and movement to the contrast and consonance of the two, and Winterrowd lifted the struggles, self-doubt, and sorrow of Skeets to a movingly personal experience of growth.

None of these actors rose above their colleagues; they simply had larger parts. The entire cast stood shoulder to shoulder in the execution of this stunning performance. Working in concert, literally and figuratively, this group of performers produced an event that, in the end, left the audience in emotionally charged silence.

These performers also stand with their director and technical support. Hurleigh’s use of space was so specific that it can only be described as choreography; she accomplished it with such naturalism, and the cast carried it out with such precision, that it was all but unnoticeable. The set design by Tim Case served the story beautifully, and lighting design by Jason Lynch provided a clear sense of where we were in space and time. Technical sound design by Samantha Aldridge was, again, almost unnoticeable—the echoes and the sounds of falling rocks simply occurred. Even the musicality of the echoes as Floyd ‘played’ the cave like an instrument were utterly believable as simple echoes.

“Floyd Collins” is a musical play that is physically and musically challenging for the performers and psychologically challenging for the audience. UCO’s students and staff offered a nuanced, precisely executed production that pushed the audience to a dangerous edge, held us as we looked the abyss in the face, and did not let us fall.