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Front Porch Theatricals' 'Floyd Collins' explores early media craze

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, 4:24 p.m.
New Yorker Danny McHugh is making his Pittsburgh debut 
in the title role of Front Porch Theatricals’ “Floyd Collins.”
Front Porch Theatricals
New Yorker Danny McHugh is making his Pittsburgh debut in the title role of Front Porch Theatricals’ “Floyd Collins.”
The Collins siblings (from left) include Homer (Nathan Salstone), Floyd (Danny McHugh) and Nellie (Lindsay Bayer) in Front Porch Theatricals’ 'Floyd Collins.'
Deana Muro
The Collins siblings (from left) include Homer (Nathan Salstone), Floyd (Danny McHugh) and Nellie (Lindsay Bayer) in Front Porch Theatricals’ 'Floyd Collins.'

Although media frenzies are part of modern culture, one of the first in American history occurred around the tragic death of a cave explorer in Kentucky almost a century ago and inspired a poignant musical performed today.

“Floyd Collins,” which opened off-Broadway in 1996, will round out Front Porch Theatricals' American Dreamers series. The show runs through Sept. 4 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

“We do socially relevant musicals, musicals that make people think while they're watching and long after,” says Front Porch co-founder Leon Zionts of the decision to stage the production, which was written by Adam Guettel based on a book by Tina Landau. “Floyd Collins was an American dreamer who died seeking fame and fortune, so it was a perfect fit for this year's series.”

Collins' death — the result of being trapped in a cave for days — attracted gawkers and became a media sensation because it coincided with the advent of radio, which brought Collins' ordeal to a widespread public as it was unfolding, Zionts says.

KDKA, the first licensed radio station in America, broadcast Collins' entrapment.

Rachel Stevens, resident director of the 2016 Front Porch season, says directing “Floyd Collins” has been a professional goal since she first saw the production as a high-school student in Philadelphia, where it premiered.

“It was one of the reasons I pursued a theater career,” says Stevens, 29, of Avonia, N.Y., and a graduate of Point Park University. “The score and the show … they were so powerful, I decided I needed to direct plays.”

Although Collins' death occurred in 1925, it has special meaning today because society is so desensitized to the phenomenon of the media circus, she says. “Floyd Collins is where it started, so let's examine and take stock.”

Collins was an experienced spelunker who became trapped in Sand Cave in Barren County, Ky., while trying to find a new entrance to a system of underground caves that were popular with tourists. His family owned Crystal Cave in the same area, but it wasn't drawing many visitors, and Collins was determined to find better access, according to historical accounts. His leg was pinned by a rock in a narrow crawlway 150 feet from the entrance.

People got food to him and communicated with him while rescuers struggled to devise a plan to free him. One reporter, Skeets Miller, was small enough to get down to where Collins was stuck and could relay their conversations. His stories would win him a Pulitzer Prize.

A week after Collins' entrapment, a passage used to try to reach him collapsed, forcing rescuers to dig an alternate shaft. When they finally reached Collins, he was dead.

Collins' story captivated Guettel and Landau, who teamed up to write “Floyd Collins.”

Guettel's music is “gorgeous and lush,” Stevens says. “There's this contrast between folksy-bluegrassy undertones and soaring operatic orchestrations that blend together and penetrate the spirit.”

Danny McHugh, 32, of Astoria, N.Y., played Collins in his Pittsburgh debut.

“At 20, I was fortunate enough to see the show and witness it in its full vision, so getting this role hit home for me,” McHugh says.

McHugh says he admires Collins for his passion for caving and for the optimism he reportedly displayed during his ordeal. But he also recognizes the awfulness of his death, he says. “The biggest challenge, for me, is going mentally and emotionally to the place where this man died, channeling the fears within myself and trying to bring them out.”

The role is physically challenging as well, says McHugh, who is in one spot and positioned at an angle for much of the two-hour show.

Stevens wanted a minimal set, relying on music and dialogue to immerse the audience in the evolving drama.

“This is a true story, so we have to honor the people who went through it,” Stevens says. “We have to honor the history.”

Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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