As you can see in Edward Albee's The Goat, a great new play about a man who betrays his wife by screwing a goat, there's no accounting for taste. I loved that play, but I've got to admit that, though I truly admire Blackfriars’ latest production and respect the show it’s doing, I really don't like it.
Not only was it ambitious of Blackfriars to attempt the offbeat, difficult musical Floyd Collins, but the company achieved what may be its finest work to date in performing it.
Its true story of a man's entrapment and slow death in a cave is certainly hard to stage. We've come to expect director-designer John Haldoupis to create well-made scenery, and his elaborate Kentucky farm scene with the interior of a cave is a beauty. The suggestion of the rotting interior, falling rocks, and collapsing supports is brought home by Roger Brainard's jarring sound effects and Jane Ahrens and Rick Rizzo's lighting effects. Blackfriars’ improved lighting equipment no doubt helped Ahrens and Rizzo's stunning lighting designs to achieve this highpoint.
The music is even tougher. Adam Guettel's complex score combines jazz and bluegrass motifs into a form that sounds less like musical theater than an unmelodic modern opera like, say, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. It's a witch to sing, opening with a full-voiced chorus and a long solo by Collins, who’s exploring his cave and listening to echoes of his shouts of "Da de yah! Do de yo!" while thinking aloud at operatic full projection for maybe eight minutes.
The two duets in the cave between Jens WL Hinrichsen's Floyd and Billy Powell's Homer, Floyd's brother, are virtual arias. Hinrichsen and Powell would no doubt win regional theater awards with those duets as a competition entry. Bill deMetsenare is equally impressive as the enormously sympathetic reporter Skeets Miller. Lara Ianni, as Floyd's sister Nellie, sings the closest thing to a conventional song in the score splendidly. A company of 12 sings the music with aplomb, and a six-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director Cara D'Emanuele, plays the tricky score with panache.
Hinrichsen, Powell, and DeMetsenare play with such emotional force and charm that I'd almost want to spend time with their characters. Lively and beautiful, Ianni almost manages to make the moronic sister appealing. And the whole cast manages its down-home accents and often ironic portrayals splendidly. Under Haldoupis' taut direction, the cast’s intense performance actually keeps the drama riveting.
But the story is not only unremittingly unpleasant; it also deals with mostly mean-spirited characters with aspirations toward stupidity. The intention is to celebrate the indomitable human spirit, but Tina Landau's script includes little to admire in these characters and no sense of any inner nobility. Floyd's insistence on crawling down into dangerous holes strikes me as less than inspiring in the first place and almost inevitably likely to end in disaster.
To achieve any upbeat moments, the show has to move to fantasy scenes, which I found annoying. And the true-life details offered are even more disgusting than depressing. We're told at the end that those insects that are made "poetic" use of in the dialogue actually ate off portions of Collins' nose as he lay dying.
The music has been notably admired by connoisseurs of musical theater, so I guess I'm not a connoisseur. Cleverly constructed though Guettel's score may be, I didn't hear one number that I'd want to hear again. And when the zenith of his lyrics --- endlessly repeated --- is "Da de yah! Do de yo!" I start yearning for Busta Rhymes.
Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, directed by John Haldoupis, plays 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, through May 25. Tickets: $18-$20. Info: 454-1260.