The potent Adam Guettel and Tina Landau musical "Floyd Collins," memorably produced by the Goodman Theatre in 1999 with the late Guy Adkins in a lead role, is all about a young and unlucky 1920s Kentucky spelunker who finds himself trapped down a hole. The quest that gets the fellow stuck — a desire to find a new cavern that could make him money and pull tourists from Mammoth Cave — was intended by Landau to represent a quintessentially American act of entrepreneurial exploration, and the rest of this unusual but artful show is, in essence, a powerful consideration of whether Collins' push for glory was worth the terrible price that he ends up paying.
The poor young farmer and cave junkie does a lot of thinking about what glory really means as he sits there stuck, even as an exploitational carnival of reporters, moviemakers and concession-sellers explodes above his head.
Watching the small Chicago company known as Boho Theatre stage this piece at the intimate Theater Wit on Sunday afternoon, I was struck anew by the quality of Guettel's earthy, early (pre-"Light in the Piazza") score — which contains a plethora of rich tunes, including "Through the Mountain" (nicely sung by Sarah Bockel) and "The Call," which is powerfully rendered by Jim DeSelm, the very handsome and promising talent in the title role. Musically speaking, this is one of the best recent BoHo productions, thanks to the musical director Alan Bukowiecki, a deft little five-piece orchestra and some decent young singers in the cast, a group that includes Jon Harrison in the role of Homer. Harrison is, for sure, a name to watch.
But although the show starts out in stirring fashion, and features a number of fine individual performances throughout, Peter Marston Sullivan's production struggles to maintain tension and high dramatic stakes, which is a problem with a show that is predicated on a rescue. The energy does not so much build as pulse unevenly.
As books go, Landau's is not the easiest to fuse together, but it's all there if you've got the right visual metaphors in place. I kept staring at Diane D. Fairchild's set, trying to figure out what intentions were in play. But it is hard to see the two worlds we need to see — one a subterranean crisis zone of the soul, one a surface circus — or sense how they connect. There's too much thick, cloying stuff on the stage for a simpler use-your-imagination conceit, which could have worked, but there's also no pathway through all that stuff, especially since, in crucial transitions, Sullivan hasn't figure out how to instill urgency and unity. You can't get the events of this day firmly arranged in your brain, and as result understanding what they mean can't happen either.
As a chance to hear Guettel's songs, skillfully rendered, this production has rewards; as an act of storytelling, it needed to free itself from under a rock.
When: Through July 15
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $22-$28 at 773-975-8150 or BoHoTheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye