Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 30, 2006
Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky is, mostly, an unexpected delight: it's an unusual, intimate, earnest two-person musical about how faith and healing can come from the most unexpected places. Floyd Duffner is a Country/Western singer who, when we first meet him, is out of step with himself and his audience: as I heard him sing the two numbers that open the show (an off-kilter, half-satiric paean to online romance called "email@example.com" and the frankly confessional "One Foot in the Real World"), it occurred to me that this man was half desperate and half genius.
Floyd walks off the stage during this, his final concert, in Scene 1; we find him in Scene 2 three years later, living in his car and living off booze, on a remote roadside in Great Falls, Montana. But someone else finds him here, too—a tenacious, ambitious young woman named Clea Johnson, who has heard him singing to himself and accompanying himself on guitar and recognized him as a talented musician. Clea wants to get as far away from Montana as possible, as soon as possible, and thinks that her own talent for singing and writing songs might be the ticket. When she discovers that Floyd used to be a sort-of well-known performer, she determines to tame him and make him her friend. He becomes that, and as time passes her biggest fan and supporter as well, for she does indeed have talent. And Clea's own sad recollections of her father, who deserted the family long ago and may have committed suicide, help push her into a strenuous rehabilitation project, pulling Floyd back into the world.
Librettist/lyricist/co-composer David Cale, who also plays Floyd, and his collaborator Jonathan Kreisberg (who co-wrote the music) have structured their musical somewhat unconventionally: for most of its length, Floyd and Clea is more like a play with (lots of) music, with the songs always clearly identified as tunes the characters are performing or working on, yet just as clearly propelling the story by revealing their otherwise unstated thoughts and feelings. It's very effective, and some of the songs are enormously affecting. Especially as the story moves toward its climax—Clea is about to make her break and move to Hollywood, and Floyd has stopped drinking and is ready to rejoin the human race—the songs capture the characters' emotions beautifully. My favorite is probably "A Simple Life," which describes Floyd's new existence, out of show business, modest but genuinely his own.
Cale's performance is terrific throughout, and his singing, though sometimes raspy, is quite moving. Mary Faber, who plays Clea, has a powerhouse voice and acts the role well, though she feels a bit less authentic in the Country/Western genre than Cale. Director Joe Calarco keeps the show moving briskly, incorporating David Korins's tricky scenery to make transitions an organic and important part of the proceedings. The onstage band (Dylan Schiavone on guitars and piano, Jimmy Heffernan on dobro/pedal steel, Brad Russell on bass, and Bill Campbell on drums) sounds great and Calarco integrates them nicely as well; we never wonder what they're doing on stage, even in the scenes where Floyd and Clea are outdoors, hanging around the old Studebaker that is his home for much of the show.
In fact the only place Floyd and Clea falters is in its final scenes, which feel structurally different from the rest of the show and take it in a jarring and, I thought, compromising direction. The penultimate scene contains no music at all, which makes it a hard sit to begin with; it depicts events that don't feel earned or even necessary after what's preceded it. The final scene smacks of somebody telling Cale to tack on a traditional happy ending, and features the only two songs in the score that do not reflect the characters and personalities of the show's title characters. It's a feel-good ending, but it's a bad let-down after the raw truths that the rest of the musical has traded in.
Nevertheless, there's a lot that's entertaining and satisfying in Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky. Kreisberg's music—none of it written in the jazzy vein that is his usual stock in trade, by the way—is pleasing and versatile, and I was particularly impressed at how well he and Cale have succeeded in creating such distinct styles and voices for their two characters here. And Cale's work, as performer and writer, is revelatory after the monologues he's best known for in the theatre: I'd love to check out another musical of his, should he someday create one.