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[whitespace] 'Floyd Collins' Sibling Memory: Floyd Collins (Matt Farnsworth) and his brother, Homer (Paul Woodson), recall better times.

Photograph by David Allen

Cave Dwellers

TheatreWorks' 'Floyd Collins' puts a spelunking disaster to music

By Michael J. Vaughn

SURE WOULD HAVE loved to be a fly on the wall when playwright Tina Landau told composer-pal Adam Guettel her latest idea. "You want to make a musical about what?" To put it kindly: the perils and glories of spelunking. To put it bluntly: it's about a guy stuck in a cave. After following our title character into the cave of his dreams--a huge open room 150 feet beneath a Kentucky hillside--and then watching him get pinned down by a sliding rock, you might feel a little trapped yourself. Guettel and Landau quickly embark on the kind of touchy-feely relationship subplots evidently required by the Disaster Story Act of 1975 (enacted soon before the premiere of The Towering Inferno). By the end of the act, we're fully up to speed on Floyd's recently institutionalized sister, Nellie (Elizabeth Snyder), his handsome, rowdy brother, Homer (Paul Woodson), and his Bible-thumping, intolerant father, Lee (Patrick Flick).

The cavalry arrives soon after, however, in the person of small-time newspaper reporter Skeets Miller, played by Mister Stage Presence himself, Francis Jue (TheatreWorks' M. Butterfly and Amadeus). Skeets possesses an inquiring mind and an affection for speaking his punctuation out loud. Most importantly, he's the only one skinny enough to get through the final passage between the rescuers and Floyd. While slowly digging him out, Skeets conducts a running interview, then sends out a story that gets picked up by 1,200 newspapers nationwide and creates one of America's first media frenzies (the musical is based on actual events of 1925).

The appeal of caving and the dread of entrapment hold nary a lantern to our fascination with media and celebrity (behold Survivor, where they spend millions to produce lesser imitations of Floyd). A carnival-like Cave City erupts on the grounds near Floyd's cave, and a local engineering honcho, H.T. Carmichael (Robert Rossman), hijacks the rescue operations for his own publicity. A trio of reporters (Gary Horowitz, Mickey Killianey and Kenneth Koppes) celebrate their bumper crop of headlines with the jazzy "Is That Remarkable?"

Though Guettel's more contemplative songs verge on sappiness, his music remains interesting throughout, applying many hints of bluegrass, some rousing Celtic drumming before "The Riddle Song" (a celebration of Homer and Floyd's playful childhood) and even a "Ballad of Floyd Collins" (performed by singer/guitarist Jonathan Rhys Williams) in the traditional shipwreck/mining disaster oeuvre of folk music.

The most touching tune is Nellie's "Through the Mountain," sung by Snyder in a purposefully rough, "old-timey" mountain style. The most splendid is the cave-yodel fugue created by Farnsworth and soundman Garth Hemphill's echoes in Floyd's great underground room. Andrea Bechert's set is a fascination of its own, a tangle of steel railings that evokes the coldness, confusion and narrow passageways of the cave without hiding the performers. This isn't the first odd musical for TheatreWorks (recall the dancing Siamese twins of 1998's Side Show) and probably won't be the last. It's far from perfect, but thanks to the guidance of director Robert Kelley and the group's thoroughness of vision, it's definitely a show that's worth looking into.

Floyd Collins plays Tuesdays at 7:30pm (except May 1), Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm (plus April 21 and 28 at 2pm) and Sundays at 2pm (plus April 22 and 29 at 7pm) through May 6 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Mercy and Castro streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$38. (www.theatreworks.org or 650.903.6000)

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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