Going underground - and on stage - with 'Floyd Collins' in La Mirada

Mark Whitten as Floyd Collins, photo by Michael Lamont.

One of the best midsize venues for professional theater in LA County has a somewhat unusual location - its 199 seats are on located on the stage of La Mirada Theatre,
adjacent to the actors.

Normally, La Mirada tries to fill its proscenium-style theater's 1,251 seats in the conventional way -- with the audience facing the stage -- but to get to the current "Floyd Collins," the audience bypasses the regular auditorium. The ushers direct the spectators to chairs placed temporarily on the stage itself -- in a raked, three-sided thrust around the action.

La Mirada introduced this much more intimate seating configuration into its programming last year with a intense production of "Spring Awakening," and now it has followed up that success with a second triumph - Richard Israel's revival of another very dark musical, "Floyd Collins."

The plot follows the plight of a young man who's trapped in a cave in 1925 Kentucky, based on the true story of Floyd Collins, which ballooned into one of the first major mass-media events in the age of radio. "Skeets" Miller, a young reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the story for the Louisville Courier-Journal and later worked for NBC, is depicted by name in Tina Landau's script.

Israel also directed a 2005 production of "Floyd Collins" at what was then the home of the now-largely-dormant West Coast Ensemble - a much smaller venue on La Brea. Now, on La Mirada's large stage, he and designers Rich Rose (scenic) and Lisa D. Katz (lighting) have a lot more room to suggest the expanses of the cave. Yet with the audience only a few feet away from the actors, they also have the ability to preserve the sense of claustrophobia of the scenes set inside the cave.

Still, much of the musical is set outside the cave, as family and media and rescue crews mingle. And occasionally scenes take us into dream territory, where the entrapped Floyd is free to come and go despite his actual predicament.

FLOYD COLLINS-LA MIRADA-3.jpgAdam Guettel's score is the show's ultimate star -- a quicksilver mix of joyful noises alongside the more expected melancholic and mournful strains, of bluegrass mixed with art song. It's performed to perfection by the cast and by David O's band, located in the venue's regular orchestra pit just behind the main bank of spectators. Designer Josh Bessom fills the arena with immersive sound.

The cast excavates the characters with masterful precision. Mark Whitten plays the ambitious but caught caver. Josey Montana McCoy portrays "Skeets," whose diminutive stature helps him reach a position in the cave within touching distance of Floyd. Kim Huber and Jonah Platt as Floyd's siblings and Larry Lederman (who also was in Israel's 2005 version) and Victoria Strong as his parents all offer distinctive perspectives on Floyd's sad saga. A men's trio provides a vaudevillian dash of media satire.

With this production drawing on Israel's initial work at the West Coast Ensemble, it's an example of a phenomenon that LA theater should encourage - using the sub-100-seat theaters as developmental arenas for midsize productions that furnish more remuneration for the talent and better design resources, while preserving the audience's up-close perspective. LA audiences should support such efforts for reasons that go beyond the merits of this particular show.

Still, the merits of this "Floyd Collins" are many - and they're well worth the drive to the southeast reaches of the county. Take the Rosecrans exit east off the 5 freeway to La Mirada Boulevard (go to lamiradatheatre.com for tickets and further guidance.)

Lower photo: Mark Whitten and Kim Huber in "Floyd Collins." Michael Lamont

More by Don Shirley:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed