Underground Movement

When a show has been advertised with the line "Dreams Don't Always Come True," you know entering the theater that you're likely not in for a giddy romp. And yet the ultimate word-of-mouth musical Floyd Collins, given a North Texas premiere by Plano Repertory Theatre, isn't as relentlessly downbeat as Stephen Sondheim's Passion or as operatically gruesome as Jason Robert Brown's Parade. It is at once more ambitious and more elementary than either of those shows.

With a book by Tina Landau and a score by Adam Guettel (he's Richard Rodgers' grandson) that uses a hybrid of Appalachian folk styles and the arrhythmic musicality of 20th-century classical composers, Floyd Collins tells the story of a man who briefly became America's most famous celebrity in 1925--for getting trapped inside a cave. They're not the first to see dramatic potential in this true-life tale; director Billy Wilder and novelist Robert Penn Warren took a shot at fictionalizing it in their respective media, but previous adaptations have used Collins to stir indignation over voyeuristic journalists and thrill-seeking readers. That's the smaller part of Landau and Guettel's piece. They're more interested in the kind of introspection that a dying man must go through while family, friends and strangers scramble fruitlessly above ground to free him.

I'm not giving away the major plot point by revealing that the eponymous protagonist of Floyd Collins is doomed. In a production attentive to the details of mood (albeit flawed in other areas) under the direction of John Warriner, we sense calamity from the moment the strains of "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" mournfully begin, and Floyd himself (here played by musical theater stalwart Stan Graner) wanders onstage while rambling about his dreams of starting a tourist attraction in the crawlspaces beneath the Collins' Kentucky farm.

The authors of this production had reason to believe a work they labored over for years might meet a similar premature end; a 1996 off-Broadway run was brief and unenthusiastically reviewed. But then stagings in San Diego, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston began to earn raves, and the original cast album from NYC was released. Suddenly, Floyd Collins became the iconoclastic favorite of thousands of new musical fans who had never seen it. Productions have since popped up all over the country to meet the demand for folks who, literally, know the score.

Suggesting once again that the region's smaller cities--Irving, Garland, Addison, Mesquite--harbor the more enthusiastic audiences and the more resourceful facilities, Plano Repertory Theatre's Sunday matinee of Floyd Collins was almost sold-out and designed with multilevel ingenuity by set meister Bryan Wofford. It's essentially a more barren version of the craggy landscape with vivid swath of sky that Wofford whipped up for PRT's Journey's End, but it's nonetheless marvelously evocative of the nakedness of Collins' dilemma. A veteran and cocky spelunker, Collins finds his leg caught beneath a collapse of sandstone, and he becomes increasingly desperate as brother Homer (Donald Fowler), father Lee (Jim Green) and Skeets Miller (Doug Miller), the newspaperman whose stories make him famous, struggle to pull him out.

There are musical performers I've seen frequently around town who turn in their best work to date in Floyd Collins. Graner, in particular, has always struck me as a perfectly professional actor and singer who needs forceful direction to prod him out of that tar pit of professionalism. He seems to have been cast in shows as diverse as Company and The Secret Garden for sheer, unremarkable reliability. But in the title role of Guettel and Landau's show, Graner projects an aw-shucks-ism that seems self-deluding from the start. It's clear to us during the show's opening scene that Floyd's oft-proclaimed luck while crawling through claustrophobic subterranean spaces will run out and that the man's fated to follow his big dreams right into the grave. Graner nicely essays this kind of slightly deranged courage like some overgrown kid with a precocious if fragile falsetto. During the first act, whenever the performer would open his mouth and sing, I'd plunder my brain to recall whose voice his resembled. I finally figured it out--a young David Bowie circa Space Oddity. That high, nasal tremolo worked beautifully in those moments when the unseen orchestra crashed the instruments together in a multinote pileup as per Guettel's dissonant directions.

Also impressive is Fowler as wayward brother Homer, whose breathing and range have expanded considerably since I saw him in Saturday Night at Theatre Three. His conspicuous, teeth-flashing good looks also work to defuse one of the production's clunkier moments, when a nelly, bereted filmmaker named Cliff Roney (Regan Adair) descends on the family farm and offers Homer a picture deal. We believe, at least, that Fowler as a farm boy would attract such an invitation, even when it's handled with a campiness that clashes with an otherwise eerily serene show.

There are myriad difficulties that attend Floyd Collins, both in the authors' design and PRT's execution. Collins family relationships are never adequately delineated (with the exception of Floyd and his touched-in-the-head sister Nellie, played by the crystal-voiced Dara Whitehead). This makes some of their behavior feel abrupt and inexplicable, as when Lee Collins starts hawking photos of his boy or Homer invokes his dead mother against the old man. And the reporter Skeets Miller, who becomes one of Floyd's most important final-hour comforters, emerges as the primary voice of conscience in the rampaging national press. But that evolution happens in one giant, awkward leap, and I don't blame Miller as Skeets, who contributes an authentic hesitation to each of his emotions--anger at his colleagues, frustration at the rocks pinning Floyd, grief when the rescue must inevitably be abandoned--that suggests a man being forced to confront harsh truths he's never pondered before. But this reporter, like so many of the family members, wanders in an aimless orbit around the trapped man that causes the production to lose focus when it dallies too long over their stories.

And yet, I found myself undeniably moved by Plano Repertory Theatre's production of a very strange book and score that's garnered an international cult not dependent on New York cachet. The yodeling and echo motifs; the discordant score that trampled melody and sent the singers into repetitive brawling with the orchestra during the most intensely felt moments; and the anti-musical sight of one man spending most of two acts twisted up in a tunnel with a pained expression, reliving his family conflicts and his ambitions and bumping against the limits of his faith in God as he grows weaker and more fearful--all were compelling for their determination to give momentum to an essentially plotless, preordained tragedy. For all its shortcomings, Floyd Collins barrels toward a ga-ga mixture of elation and horror that ends with slowly fading lights on the horizon. One of the characters mentions Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum in reference to Floyd's plight, but this show reminded me more of a musical version of The Premature Burial; it spins brooding joy out of a particular primal fear.

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Jimmy Fowler