A correction was made to this review on Feb. 16, 2005.
In 1925, the first modern media circus took place when Floyd Collins, an avid cave explorer, crawled 150 feet underground and became trapped by a rock. His predicament — which spawned sensation-seeking press and public curiosity — is the focus of a sensitively directed but problematic musical that was produced Off Broadway in 1996. Although helmer Richard Israel shows understanding of his protagonists and Kentucky milieu, the basic material wanders too frequently from Floyd himself and dissipates energy on undeveloped characters.
After a lively, folk-flavored opener, “The Ballad of Floyd Collins,” expertly rendered by David Nadeau and Dana Reynolds, we meet the charismatic Collins (Bryce Ryness) as he wiggles, squeezes and slithers downward. These gyrations — heightened by Lisa D. Katz’s versatile lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ sound effects — are the highlight of the production.
Ryness’ body language during his claustrophobic journey is amazingly adroit, and he does a multidimensional job of making us feel Floyd’s emotions, from optimistic hope of turning the cave into a tourist attraction to a desperate show of bravery and finally to stark terror. The basic sunshine of his personality becomes a tragic counterpoint to the cold, oppressive environment slowly snuffing out his life.
There’s something so real and chokingly poignant about Ryness’ portrayal, and the dilemma itself, that music often feels unnecessary. Adam Guettel’s lyrics offer an honest smell and flavor (“deep in the land of the hollows and creeks, if’n you git lit lost, you git lost fer weeks”), and his tunes have originality. But his dissonant melodies call attention to wrenching, singer-challenging intervals. An overall sophistication and lack of conventional melody sacrifice needed simplicity at crucial moments, and the songs rarely soar.
Show-stopping exceptions are “Remarkable,” sung by scoop-hungry reporters in Andrews Sisters style (Cate Caplin’s sparkling choreography here is also a major plus), and Ryness’ “The Call,” in which Floyd states his ambitions to be “a so-an’-so, a muck-a-muck … a real wheeler-dealer!”
Brief sequences with Floyd’s father, Lee (Larry Lederman), stepmother Jane (Andrea Covell) and sister Nellie (Dana Reynolds) are well acted but sketchily written, and Jerry Kernion’s vigorous interpretation of a bombastic construction manager can’t overcome the part’s lack of dimension.
A few characters besides Floyd have flesh-and-blood depth. As Skeets Miller, whose slender size permits him to creep down narrow passageways and make contact with Floyd, David Kaufman is a compassionate and engaging figure. Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole” made the mistake of turning this journalist, portrayed by Kirk Douglas, into an opportunistic villain, and Landau’s concept is more moving and human. Moments when Skeets tells the trapped man that he has become a tabloid hero have a bittersweet artlessness, and when Floyd asks Skeets to kiss him, an act meant to certify their final farewell, Landau’s script achieves emotional beauty.
Stef Tovar also makes a firm impression as Homer, Floyd’s frantic brother. Director Israel encourages him to demonstrate unrestrained passion, and his scenes with Floyd vibrate with an authentic, bantering veracity that defines a truthful sibling relationship. Their duet, “The Riddle Song,” a nostalgic tribute to the pleasures of childhood, is performed with upbeat looseness and freedom.
Missing is a sufficient sense of ugliness about the exploitation of Floyd’s tragedy. Floyd’s father succumbs to selling pictures of his son for money, brother Homer is persuaded to appear in a film, and there are random details of greed, yet the full horror of milking a media event that set the pattern for such press circuses as those associated with O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson never comes across. Nothing evokes the torturous magnitude of the tragedy as much as Israel’s stirringly staged rescue efforts or Floyd’s tormented cry for help into the suffocating darkness.