In the age of Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour news channels, it can be easy to forget that media frenzies have been around as long as the media themselves. One of the biggest such events of the early 20th century sprang up in 1925 in south-central Kentucky, where cave explorer Floyd Collins became trapped in the course of discovering what would later be known as Sand Cave. Before long, newspaper and radio reporters were camped out, tens of thousands of tourists showed up, and vendors set up stalls to sell food and souvenirs — a media circus in every sense of the phrase.
That's the foundation for Floyd Collins, a musical by librettist Tina Landau and composer Adam Guettel currently onstage at Boiler Room Theatre. Landau and Guettel's work had humble beginnings — it premiered in 1994 and had a brief off-Broadway run in '96 — but it has lived on in various productions through the years, including a national tour.
A trapped spelunker might seem an unlikely subject for a contemporary musical, but as the Boiler Room production makes clear, it's a strangely captivating work. Landau's book is imaginative, and Guettel bravely locates the nexus where his own serious influences (including complex classical work) meet with the simpler sounds of bluegrass. (Guettel, the subject of almost cultish fandom, went on to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score for 2005's The Light in the Piazza. He's also the grandson of Richard Rodgers.)
While Floyd Collins concerns itself with the plight of the title character, as well as his kith and kin, it is also about what happens when sensationalism overtakes a tragic news event to the point where a carnival atmosphere seems to trump the serious business at hand — namely, Floyd's rescue. It certainly doesn't lack for drama, and the BRT mounting, firmly directed by Laura Skaug, finds an appropriately earthy approach to the material while capturing the sadness and confusion surrounding the principals, whose lives are overwhelmed by forces beyond their control.
Geoff Davin is the nominal star as Floyd, and his performance is stirring and layered with pathos, as we play witness to his strange predicament, courage and eventual demise. Davin's early triptych of songs, "Part One: The Cave," establishes an almost operatic poignance, as do his other selections, right up to the unsettling closer, "How Glory Goes."
Yet this is truly an ensemble piece, and the cast of 15 includes many gifted players making memorable contributions, including Jennifer Richmond as Floyd's devoted sister Nellie, Will Sevier as caring brother Homer, Michael Adcock as a valiant reporter, plus local veterans such as Lisa Gillespie, Scott Stewart and Phil Perry.
Among the standout musical numbers is the Act 2 opener "Is That Remarkable?" — a compelling and well-staged group piece featuring Megan Chambers, Daniel Bissell and Bryce Conner. In addition, Richmond movingly delivers the highly emotional "Through the Mountain," and throughout, we get snippets of the folky "Ballad of Floyd Collins," led on guitar by Josh Lowery. Plus there's "The Dream," the show's penultimate song, which cleverly proffers an alternate ending to Collins' desperate situation.
Musical director Jamey Green meets the stiff challenge of presenting Guettel's irregular rhythms and heavily textured, often dissonant arrangements, which serve to underscore more straightforward melodies but nevertheless mark Floyd Collins as a distinctively modern opus. Assisting in his task among the six-piece band are violinist Charis MacKrell and guitarist Dale Herr, whose instrumental skills provide welcome regional flavoring.
The show is heading into its final weekend, and it's highly recommended for theatergoers interested in something truly unusual and rewarding.