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Floyd Collins, a Kentucky caver, got trapped in Sand Cave on Jan. 30, 1925. He remained there until rescuers recovered his body more than two weeks later. The incident became a major media event and the inspiration for a movie and a musical.

In 1951, Billy Wilder directed "Ace in the Hole," starring Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. The central figure in the film is not the trapped caver, but the ambitious newspaper reporter (Douglas) who shamelessly uses the tragedy to advance his career.

Forty-three years later the story was turned into a musical, this time focused on the caver himself, with book by Tina Landau, and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers and the son of Mary Rodgers, a performer and composer who wrote the score for "Once Upon a Mattress."

"Floyd Collins" was commissioned by the American Theater Festival (now the Prince Music Theater) in Philadelphia and ran at Plays & Players from April 9 through April 24, 1994. The show was subsequently redeveloped at Playwrights Horizons in 1995, where it began a limited run on March 3, 1996. A mini-tour production in 1999 visited the Old Globe in San Diego, Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia and the Goodman in Chicago.

This year, "Floyd Collins" returns to New York - at the Gallery Players in a masterful production directed by M.R. Goodley.

Floyd Collins (Nicholas Wuehrmann) lives in an area of Kentucky where for many years farmers and landowners had been fighting a series of "cave wars," each competing to discover and operate caves which they could decorate and open for a profitable tourist business. Searching for a cave that would prove more lucrative than his previously opened Crystal Cave, Floyd sets out to explore Sand Cave.

With only a dim lantern to light his way and the echoes of his voice to guide him, Floyd winds his way underground, hoping to find a new cavern. But 150 feet below ground a rock falls on his left foot, and Floyd is trapped in a tight passageway.

At first, Floyd’s family and a few locals attempt to free him. But by nightfall, he is still trapped, and his brother, Homer (Brian Charles Rooney), crawls into the passageway to spend the night with him.

Floyd is also visited by "Skeets" Miller (Darron Cardosa), a newspaperman who is able to slide down the narrow passageway because he is no bigger than a "squito" - hence the nickname. At first Skeets merely wants to get a scoop, but he soon befriends Floyd and is determined to get him out. Eventually the National Guard, the Red Cross and H.T. Carmichael, an engineer from Kentucky Road and Asphalt Company, all become involved.

At the same time, the site takes on a carnival atmosphere as film producers, newspaper reporters and souvenir hawkers flood the area, while the Collins family begins to fall apart as suppressed conflicts come to the surface and Floyd’s mentally unstable sister, Nellie (Breanna Pine), becomes increasingly worse.

Since its first appearance, "Floyd Collins" has received considerable critical acclaim. In 1996, the Playwrights Horizons production received the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. Critics called the play a deep musical about Floyd’s spiritual journey during his underground imprisonment and praise the original orchestration that uses harmonica, fiddle and bongos. And a personality no less than playwright John Guare ("Sweet Smell of Success") wrote, "Guettel’s music is filled with the American bravura of optimism, the democracy of get up and go, the taste of America there for each and every one of us to revel in "

With all due respect to Mr. Guare, however, what does all this have to do with musicality? And how does it explain the fact that often the singers and the orchestra seem to be performing parallel rather than the same music? Avant-garde? Experimental? Maybe, but it would be nice if it was also somewhat pleasing to the ear.

Part one begins with a long solo in which Wuehrmann delivers a tour-de-force solo performance, singing about his love affair with caves. The words are poetic, but seem in conflict with the melody of the song, which seems in conflict with the instrumental accompaniment. It goes on and on until, mercifully, the rock falls on him. From then on, whether it’s Floyd singing, Miller singing, or Homer singing with Floyd, it doesn’t get much better.

Except for the snappy "Is That Remarkable" sung by the reporters and company, most of the music left this reviewer with the uncomfortable feeling that something was missing or out of sync - despite the fact that the cast includes many strong, emotive voices.

Nor should anyone fault the direction or the acting. Goodley’s blocking and presentation of the material is flawless. The cast, together and separately, effectively capture the flavor of country life in the 1920s. The play is just too problematic.

No doubt there will be those who will welcome this production as a courageous undertaking, especially for local theater. And indeed, it may be. But it left this reviewer cold.


The Gallery Players production of "Floyd Collins" plays through May 19, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm at 199 14th St. at Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 seniors and children under 12. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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