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Depth of Feeling
By Ralph Hammann

Floyd Collins
Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Tina Landau, additional lyrics by Tina Landau, directed by Jared Coseglia
Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 3

Of the 1996 Playwrights Horizon production, New York magazine critic John Simon wrote that Floyd Collins was “the original and daring musical of our day, concerned with saying something in words and music, not merely bringing in da noise or paying the rent.” Referring to overrated shows like Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk and Rent, Simon was, as usual, right. Indeed, the current dean of American theater critics was rather prophetic regarding the decade that closed without much ado in the area of musicals about ideas.

Seeing Floyd Collins today in the full-blooded production it’s being given in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn Theatre, one is struck with its timelessness and relevance to the ever-receding American dream.

The often dissonant musical is based on the true story of Floyd Collins, a 38-year-old spelunker who crawled into a sinkhole that he hoped would lead to a majestic passage that would link all of the caves in his part of rural Kentucky. Collins reasoned that such a discovery would lead to fame and financial success through the tourist attraction that would follow. Little did he know that mere days after he became trapped more than 125 feet underground in the winter if 1925, he would become the attraction as between 10,000 to 30,000 people journeyed to the site of his entrapment. While Collins, whose foot was caught in a small cave-in, was periodically visited by a cub reporter, Skeets Miller, a veritable carnival assembled aboveground for 18 days.

The story was the basis for Billy Wilder’s acerbic film The Big Carnival, which starred Kirk Douglas as the reporter who brought fame to himself and Collins. The film, told from the point of view of the reporter, was a brilliant satire on greed, the media and unreflective consumerism. Jettisoning that perspective, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau tell the story from that of the trapped Collins. It becomes an alternately rousing and rueful consideration of the literal depths to which a man will crawl to grasp his moment of fame and his piece of the American dream. It is a paean to the durability of the spirit of the dispossessed, the people who envision more than their workaday lives provide.

What first seizes your imagination at the BTF is Mimi Lien’s impressionistically impressive set depicting the lean subterranean passageway that entraps Collins. Abetted by Matthew E. Adelson’s sly lighting, Lien invites our participation in Collins’ condition on a nearly visceral level. The music, sound design and acting complete the effect.

From the outset as Collins sings three songs accompanied by musical director Linda Dowdell’s versatile keyboard and director Jared Coseglia’s marvelous echo effects and sound design, we are swiftly transported to the underground world that Collins loved. We share in his joy of inhabiting a place never trespassed on by another human. And in Dalane Mason’s fully committed performance as Collins, we feel the rapture of a man on the verge of self-realization. In that trio of songs, Mason exultantly sings to and with himself, and communicates with an immediacy and simplicity that are disarming.

When, finally, Collins becomes wedged in the passage so that even his arms are deprived of movement, the effect is deeply empathic due to Mason’s earlier free and soaring movements (some choreographed by the estimable Julian Barnett).

Cosegila has assembled a strong cast to support Mason, and the excellent designer, Marija Djordjevic, has costumed them in earth tones with rich veins of mineral deposits; the effect is that they seem to have sprouted from the ground like outcropping rocks. Chief among the talented young cast are Rachael Bell, whose voice rings clear as her surname, and Colby Chambers, who makes Skeets Miller’s journey both dramatic and heartfelt. Given Chambers’ resonance, one wonders if there is another musical to be mined from this story or, perhaps, the Wilder film. A captivating, if vocally muddied, rendition of “Is That Remarkable?” sung and danced by three reporters also prompts this notion.

As well, the plight of the rescuers attains an interest that almost rivals that of Collins.

Occasionally lyrics are inarticulate, but this is a vast improvement over the noisily engaging but indecipherable work Coseglia wrought from last year’s The Who’s Tommy in the Unicorn. Coseglia has also done admirable work in his staging by spelunking every stair and cranny of the quirkily engaging theater.

Guettel’s music is not as infectious as that of his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, and audiences are unlikely to leave Floyd Collins humming the tunes that are diverse enough to seem disparate. But there is an earnest concern here about the human condition that evokes the best of Rodgers.

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