My father used to say “There is nothing better than a great steak!” Well that is exactly what Blank Canvas Theatre is serving up on stage now, with their inventive and well cast production of Floyd Collins. Patrick Ciamacco (Artistic Director, Founder) displays his full arsenal of directorial instincts and delivers this story with array of emotional and musical depth. This musical with Book & Additional Lyrics by Tina Landau and Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel is a master class of musical interpretation. There is probably only one song that will stay in your mind due to its musicality, but the score that is delivered is not one for the faint of heart. It demands superior concentration and professional resolve to perform the piece, which the cast accomplishes with fierce bravado. This includes an orchestra that must have razor-sharp execution which is provided by the adept Musical Direction of Matthew Dolan.
The story of Floyd Collins is real. He was an American cave explorer, principally in a region of Central Kentucky. In the early 20th century, in an era known as the Kentucky Cave Wars. On January 30, 1925, while trying to find a new entrance to Crystal Cave (also known “Sand Cave” by the media), Collins became trapped in a narrow crawl way, 55 feet below ground. The rescue operation to save Collins became a national newspaper sensation and one of the first major news stories to be reported using the new technology of broadcast radio. The rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the world wars. Collins died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia after being isolated for 14 days, just three days before a rescue shaft reached his position. Collins’ body would be recovered two months later. Adding to the circus that was created through the news media, in 1927, Floyd Collins’ father, Lee Collins, sold the homestead and cave. The new owner placed Collins’ body in a glass-topped coffin and exhibited it in Crystal Cave for many years. Luckily, the National Park Service assisted the family to transfer him to a proper grave site. The fame he gained from his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.
At the core of this production is obviously Floyd Collins. You need someone who can embody this character with down home charm, rustic character, and a set of pipes that can handle music that at times is so difficult, it reminds me of taking a Musical Bar Exam. Michael Snider handles this role and its complicated counterparts like a pro. His handsome features, and resonating voice, capture all the joy and pain of Collins. The role is challenging because most of the time, he is trapped in the cave, and only has the top half of his body to transmit critical emotions to the audience. A slow arc of determination, to worry, and then to the final stages of realizing the end is not exactly what he would have ever wanted. This is a skilled and beautiful performance, and without a doubt, the best performance I have ever witnessed from Snider.
Mike Knobloch as Homer Collins, Floyd’s brother, delivers a strong performance. His characterization is excellent, as well as having a beautiful voice which is on full display. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose your brother in a situation like this, but Knobloch makes it clear and provides intrinsic decisions that take us through that process. The beautiful Madeline Krucek, is wonderful as her voice captures every emotional nuance that is demanded from Guettel. With ever-present charm, her vulnerability is perfectly portrayed throughout her journey. At one moment, she is against the corner pillar with a spot on her, and it reminded me of old school Hollywood Glamour. Just beautiful on every level.
Aimee Collier and Rob Albrecht, as Miss Jane and Lee Collins, mother and father, bring their veteran skills to the plate with emotional power. Not employing any performance tricks, just skilled execution of how real people of faith have to navigate the process of impending loss, with subtle and vocal purity. Pat Miller as “Skeets” Miller is awesome. Taking us through a reporter who is assigned to a story that is not at the top of his list, to the transformation of becoming engaged in not only the story, but the person at the heart of it. Vocally excelling, and deft choices along the way, that help catapult this journey with a realistic pace and emotional impact. Especially with the line delivery of “Forgive me for making you a story.” Simply heartbreaking.
The rest of the company is a finely tuned orchestra of southern charm, feisty-ness, smart, and courageous energy. John J. Polk (Ed Bishop), Jeff Glover (Bee Doyle), Daniel Bush (H. T. Carmichael), Jewell Estes (Joseph Daso), Cliff Roney (Robert Pierce), Dr. Hazlett (Brian O. Jackson), and Frederick Jordan (David L. Munnell). Special shout out to Daso for firmly establishing himself in a field of adult actors with a terrific performance. Strong vocals and some dynamic acting chops. Also, when Pierce, Jackson, and Munnell team up as the reporters in the opening song of Act II “Is That Remarkable?”, they bring down the house with tight harmonies and hilarious facial gesticulations, that would make the Andrew Sisters pissed off for taking their spotlight. On a personal note, I think it is time for a theatre to find a lead role for Pierce, so he can display all of his ferocious talent in one serving of Yasssssssssss.
This is a show with extremely strong direction provided by Patrick Ciamacco, along with his creative octopus theatrical arms that also provide the Lighting, Sound, Projection, Tech, and Set Design. Shout out for the actual period photographs that match on the onstage activity, which provides fascinating historical relevance. His set, which at first reminds me of Vietnam bunker realness, but quickly resolves itself into the cave representation during the first number. Matthew Dolan provides a kick ass orchestra that tackles this demanding score like Lawrence Taylor on a musical boot camp. Wonderful Stage Management by Carole Leiblinger-Hedderson, and excellent period costuming from Luke Scattergood.
My only constructive note would be that Snider’s mic seemed too close to his mouth, causing his vocals to be a bit muffled at times. Maybe this was done to compensate for the actor being sick. But, luckily, I don’t think that needs to happen.
This is a very strong production from Blank Canvas. Get your fried chicken and your kegger, and get out and see it.
All production photos credited to Andy Dudik
Tpography.com, ClevelandStageAlliance.com, and CoolCleveland.com.
For show information: www.blankcanvastheatre.com