Theater Review - Cold, Cold Ground

Floyd Collins bucks the tradition of musical theater

Adam Guettel is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, one of the fathers of the American musical as we know it. In writing the music and lyrics for Floyd Collins, Guettel seems to be both carrying on a family tradition and rebelling against it.

Musical theater is in large part about the interplay of song and motion, so it seems an act of pure cussedness for Floyd Collins to keep its main character immobile for nearly its entire running time. With a book by Tina Landau, Floyd Collins often goes deliberately against the grain of its genre, lacking a conventional love story and making plot points out of darkness and claustrophobia. Aurora Theatre's production can't transcend the contradictions built into the material, but provides an original and diverting musical performance.

Floyd Collins takes its subject from the true story of a Kentucky man trapped in a cave for two weeks in 1925, setting off a media sensation. The episode inspired the late Billy Wilder's film The Big Carnival and anticipated the national fascination with the Baby Jessica "down the well" story. The title character (Ax Norman) is a passionate spelunker seeking to locate a cavern to compete with Kentucky's popular tourist attraction Mammoth Cave amid bitter rivalries nicknamed the "cave wars."

Kat Conley's set isn't dank or craggy, but has faux-rock platforms and lengths of twisted steel to represent the narrow tunnels. Early on Collins comes across the sand cave of his dreams, and in the play's most haunting moment, he shouts echoes and answers them until forming a lovely kind of madrigal. But in trying to work his way back to the surface, his leg gets pinned by a rock in a narrow passage.

Apart from a handful of fantasy sequences, Norman spends the rest of the play (including the intermission) held fast on a gray platform. Much of the action takes place on the surface, with Floyd's predicament eventually discovered by friends and family, including ailing father (Wayne Coleman), concerned stepmother (Jennifer Levison) and a loving sister Nellie (Andrea Studley). We learn that Nellie was recently released from a mental asylum. Although the information has no payoff, Studley sweetly sings "Through the Mountain" to her lost brother like a lullaby.

The play's most important relationship is that of Floyd and his brother Homer (Brandon O'Dell), who loves his family but is itching to move onto bigger and better things. Norman and O'Dell's tough but tender interactions are some of the show's most moving scenes, as when "The Riddle Song" evokes boyhood pleasures despite its galumphing melody. When a grasping businessman (David Harrell) takes over the rescue mission, O'Dell fills the angry tune "Git Comfortable" with a fitting ire.

When fresh-faced reporter Skeets Miller (Chris Moses) makes the scene, the story explodes nationwide, sending 30,000 curiosity-seekers to Barren County. Director Rachel May conveys the surrealism of the ensuing media circus, and the show's most rollicking number, "Is That Remarkable?," has three news-hounds in trench coats doing a soft shoe while reporting unsubstantiated gossip.

Floyd Collins is most effective at showing the downside of American ambition, the production's setting akin to the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Miller becomes dedicated to the rescue attempt and disillusioned with his colleagues. Yet he and Floyd both get what they earlier wished for, with Floyd's cave becoming an attraction of national notoriety, although both men know that the price is too high.

Few of the musical's compositions are very memorable and the sequence of events can be confusing, making you wonder how long Floyd's been trapped and when visitors have contacted him. And while agreeably folksy songs like "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" and "How Glory Comes" make the title character out to be an archetypal American folk hero, the incident ultimately seems like a footnote to history, and Guettel and Landau's musical treatment comes across like an uphill push. But at least Aurora Theatre has a keen sense of its own strengths and how to please its audience: It definitely knows a musical from a hole in the ground.

Floyd Collins plays through April 21 at Aurora Theatre, 3087-B Main St., Duluth. Thurs-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. at 2 p.m. $20. 770-476-7926. www.auroratheatre.com.??

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