Floyd Collins, the title character of Adam Guettel's musical about a Kentucky backwoods man who winds up trapped in a cave for two weeks, was a real-life legendary spelunker. In 1925, the story of the man caught 150 feet below the surface made national news. In fact, amazingly enough in the years before television, Collins's story became bigger than baby Jessica McClure's. Millions of Americans tuned in their radios or opened their newspapers for daily updates on the fate of the man who'd been swallowed by the earth.
This eccentric bit of American history earned the reporter who broke the story, Skeets Miller, a Pulitzer Prize. Only skinny Miller, who was so small he was nicknamed after "skeeters," dared to slither down the narrow passageway to the spot where Collins lay trapped by a fallen rock. Miller took whiskey, water and milk down into the hole and eventually emerged with the story of a flesh and blood man who was struggling through one of the worst nightmares imaginable.
The lurid story has inspired folk songs, books (including one by Robert Penn Warren) and even a Kentucky exhibit that featured Collins's remains in a glass case -- until, that is, one sick puppy saw fit to steal the body. Happily, it has since been returned and properly buried, though one leg has yet to be accounted for. Certainly a story that has garnered this much wacky hoopla deserves entrée into the world of musical theater, where even the strangest stories are something to sing about.
Masquerade Theatre, 1537 N.Shepherd
Through October 19; 713-861-7045. $15-$25.
And singing is what they do best at Masquerade Theatre. Against Russell Freeman's set complete with an underground cave carved out of platforms and blocks and lots of stalactites made out of cone-shaped foam rubber, the cast of Floyd Collins belts out Guettel's folk-flavored tunes with great gusto and big sound.
The first number, "The Ballad of Floyd Collins," establishes the delicate musical balance Guettel (who is the grandson of composer Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers & Hammerstein) conjures from mixing lilting mountain folk with classic Broadway brass. The lonesome voice of young Richard Hunt starts off Collins's sad story with a tender tenor that could break any country girl's heart. Suddenly, he is backed up by the surprisingly rich sound that director Phillip K. Duggins pulls from his chorus of gifted singers.
Indeed, the tunes that successfully synthesize folk and Broadway become the backbone of the musical. Songs such as "Daybreak," sung by brother Homer Collins (Ilich Guardiola) and Floyd (Michael J. Ross), develop the Kentucky hillbilly world that Collins inhabited. "Heart an' Hand," sung by Collins's stepmother Miss Jane (Stephanie Bradow) and his father Lee (John Chandler), shimmers with deep woods tenderness. "Family tries to sing lullabies to each other," lament the heartbroken parents as they try to keep the faith above ground.
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Other songs reveal Guettel's dexterity with the Broadway milieu. "The Riddle Song," for instance, is a charmingly noisy moment when Homer tries to keep up Floyd's spirits by telling him riddles that remind him of their childhood. "Is That Remarkable?" is a swaggering tune that introduces the carnival-like atmosphere that swirls around Collins's entrapment as newspapermen descend on Kentucky. Especially funny are Robert Leeds, Mark Laskowski and Emilio Laredo as they balance their big brown cigars and sing that they only want to "scoop the poop."
While much of the music is very good and the cast is vocally strong, Floyd Collins doesn't feel quite finished -- in either the writing or in this particular production. Because Collins spends most of the play trapped underground lying in one position, he makes for a difficult character to wrap a show around. And there is something so innately bright and perky about Ross that it's hard to buy him as a backwoods hillbilly who sinks into dark despair as his future fades. Likewise, the cosmopolitan gait of Guardiola feels out of place. Both men sing beautifully, but neither seems completely comfortable in their hillbilly shoes.
Out of all the major players, only Kory Kilgore is well cast. As Skeets Miller, the naïve cub reporter who falls almost literally into the story of a lifetime, Kilgore finds a nice balance between youthful compassion and nervous jitters. Stephanie Bradow, whose remarkable voice has been woefully underused by Masquerade, also shines in the thankless role of Miss Jane. And Richard Hunt and Logan Keslar, the two teenage cast members, managed to thoroughly charm the giggling girls in the audience.
Floyd Collins fails to capture hearts the way the real man's story did 75 years ago, but Guettel's touching music is lovely to listen to.