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An Underground Movement

ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Theater

UCI Students Gear Up for Production of the Fact-Based Musical 'Floyd Collins,' About a Man Trapped in a Cave in the 1920s

February 07, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Lucky's what I am," Floyd Collins tells his sister before descending far beneath the rural Kentucky earth to seek his fortune.

As it turned out, Collins was legendarily unlucky in his cave exploring 75 years ago. He was looking for a huge cavern he could turn into a gold mine as a tourist attraction. Instead he found his death trap.

"Floyd Collins," the musical receiving its Orange County/Los Angeles premiere this week in a production by the UC Irvine drama department, tells the true story of Collins' entrapment and the subsequent two-week rescue effort that turned into one of the first media circuses of the modern era.

Unlike poor Floyd, director Mark Valdez, a graduating master's candidate, and Dennis Castellano, UC Irvine's head of musical theater instruction, have enjoyed uncanny luck during their nearly yearlong preparation to the production.

Castellano, the show's musical director, fell in love with "Floyd Collins" after a student turned him on to the original off-Broadway cast recording several years ago. His admiration for the 1994 musical by composer Adam Guettel and writer Tina Landau proved contagious for Valdez.

Both regard "Floyd Collins"--as do some critics--as a vanguard work that opens new possibilities for multilayered storytelling in the musical. Rather than lining up an array of showstoppers and production numbers calculated to leave an audience humming and put a skip in its step on the way out the door, "Floyd Collins" wagers everything on the strength of its story and themes.

Among those are the ties of family and how they can fray under pressure, the age-old dilemma of whether it's more rewarding to work diligently at a humble, honorable calling or go for the risky big score, and the American propensity to turn any situation into an opportunity for commercial exploitation.

"It's a challenge to have a man stuck in a cave and go through the whole thought process he goes through," Castellano said during a recent interview in his office on campus. "I don't go away whistling 'Hello Dolly,' but the piece can touch me and move me. The plot and music can unfold simultaneously and don't necessarily have to reprise into a hit song."

"Pardon the pun," chimed in Valdez, an enthusiastic, amiable 28-year-old who hails from Dallas, "but this musical goes to new depths." Valdez and Castellano had to dig out of a hole just to get approval to stage "Floyd Collins."

They knew it might not fly with the drama department's play selection committee of students and faculty because it was so heavily weighted toward male roles--11 of 13 parts. UCI productions need to offer a balance of opportunities for male and female students.

The two "Collins" enthusiasts also feared the play's publisher would not grant performance rights to a student production, preferring to hold out for a splashier professional staging as the Los Angeles/Orange County premiere. The musical had its Southern California premiere a year ago at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Valdez solved the first problem by switching the parts of several reporters and a teenage, ballad-spinning novice caver from male to female. He thinks a bit of luck--a friend-of-a-friend connection to the musical's publisher--helped free up the rights last spring, just at the deadline for setting this season's schedule.

Lucky's what Valdez continued to be when he went to New York City last fall to accept a Princess Grace Foundation Award, which is underwriting a year's salary for him to work at the Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

At the reception, "A woman said, 'Hi, I'm Tina,"' he recalled. "I said, 'I'm sorry, Tina, I didn't get your last name.' " It was Tina Landau, librettist of "Floyd Collins."

The chance meeting led to an e-mail correspondence that netted the UCI production several new revisions and additions, including a new song, "Where a Man Belongs."

The additional number "really helps ground the show [in] the tension between the family, who would rather Floyd be a farmer, and his friends who want to make money underground."

In perhaps the unlikeliest chance connection of all, the title role was won by one of Valdez's fellow grad students, Neil David Seibel--a Kentuckian who happens to be a distant blood relation of the real Floyd Collins.

"My great-great-grandmother was Floyd's aunt," Seibel said in a separate interview. Growing up in Coldspring, Ky., he was aware of the legend of Floyd's entrapment. "I didn't know it was national history," he said. "I just thought it was family history."

Cave exploring was a big part of Seibel's upbringing from the time he could walk. A graduate of Northern Kentucky University, he is deeply rooted enough in the Bluegrass State to have written and staged a one-man show, "My Appalachia," about characters he knew growing up.

His parents will fly out to see him in "Floyd Collins."

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