In olden days, if a musical didn't commence with a line of leggy cuties shimmying promises of a sultan's harem to the tired businessman, it was labeled highbrow conspiracy. Then the "thinkers" infiltrated the musical, to the point where we now have a work where audiences can barely peruse the souvenir programs for friends in the cast before a hapless Kentucky explorer is trapped in a cave, yodeling his way to oblivion, while family, neighbors, and assorted gawkers, like gargoyles with banjos, simultaneously sing out a rainbow of human failings.
Relentless, lacking in show-business guile, this musical equivalent of Steinbeck's prose became the hope of musical theater's intelligentsia, while the teeny-boppers and rubes were lapping up Rent.
Composer Adam Guettel is the grandson of Richard Rodgers, one of the two Broadway titans who put the exclamation point at the end of Oklahoma! His score is a triple-X blend of Appalachian folk tunes. Unlike his grandfather, his work is more Juilliard than Tin Pan Alley and strives for an authenticity that Rodgers never would have dreamed of. Wherever a Rodgers musical was set, the score always had a lilting Broadway melodic line, suitable for Your Hit Parade or recordings by the 101 Strings Orchestra. One feels that if his grandson had written Oklahoma! he would have filled it with real tobacco-spitting Okies and his King and I with real Siamese music.
Using banjos, harmonicas, fiddles, and the eerie motif of yodeling to capture regional music colors and achieve a sometimes psycho-like discordance and a complex counterpoint, it has only one boogie-woogie number to suggest the slightest tinge of big-city showbiz. The score makes for a fascinating dichotomy, as though Hank Williams had teamed up with Stravinsky. Though evocative, it manages to be musical while rarely being genuinely melodic.
Tina Landau's sparse book recounts the true story of how 38-year-old Floyd Collins got trapped a hundred feet below ground while exploring a Kentucky cave as a potential tourist attraction. The desperate and inept attempts to rescue him attracted hordes of vultures from the news media and 30,000 curious thrill seekers. It was the cynicism of this story that induced Billy Wilder to produce his darkest film noir, Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival), which concentrated on the dastardly manipulations of a snake-in-the-grass reporter (Kirk Douglas) and Collins's fictionalized tramp of a wife.
In a new-age musical finale, Collins has a dream sequence where Floyd escapes the cave and his beloved family, dressed in resplendent white, comes to greet him. Then, of course, he dies in the depths of the cave he had counted on as the answer to his dream. This is a show that gives the audience a chance to be a hero by enduring its artsy morbidity. The evening is built on a downhill slant: imagine Harold Hill tarred and feathered in River City, Eliza Doolittle exposed as a Cockney at the ball, or a Molly Brown who sinks. Fortunately, its cerebrally endowed creators are able to prevent a muddy landslide of bathos by shoring it up with hard-edged compassion and unlikely humor.
Among the many fascinating nuggets is a literally and figuratively small-time reporter who crawls down the cave to get the inside story and, through his contact with Collins, grows into a moral he-man giant. In this role, it is a pleasure to watch Jeff Lockshine grow from wren to eagle.
In a scene between the two Collins brothers, one trapped in the cave, the other trapped in his guilt, they mournfully comfort each other with riddles and memories of fishing trips in their long-lost boyhoods. It is here that the work sheds its icy hauteur and takes on the emotional weight of plangent folk opera, with the ache of The Grapes of Wrath and the bittersweet tang of Mark Twain's Americana.
Yet, sadly, we meet the show at only half wattage. Artistic Director Scott Spence should be congratulated for taking on such a grizzly bear of a musical; at the same time he should be whacked with a ruler for not importing a directorial genius with a megaphone and whip to tame it and add clarity to its opaque rough edges.
The production is paunchy where it needs to be sharp and precise as a Walker Evans depression study. Don Mc-Bride's cave set brings to mind a jungle gym in a children's playground rather than a formidable trap. The orchestra lacks the necessary texture, and the cast is vocally unable to jump through Guettel's treacherous musical hoops.
With a couple of exceptions, the cast is soft and fuzzy, bringing to mind a menagerie of stuffed animals on the loose at F.A.O. Schwartz. The blazing standout, aside from Lockshine, is Jamie Koeth as Floyd's brother. He's a young tiger whose eyes shimmer a fearsome life force, the only light bright enough to illuminate this brave work's heart and soul.
Floyd Collins, through June 27 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.