This 1994 piece by musical-theater royalty Adam Guettel (son of Mary Rodgers, grandson of Richard Rodgers) and Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau takes as its subject the true-life case of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky amateur caver who, upon becoming trapped in an underground cavern in 1925, became the center of a media circus. Landau and Guettel’s purpose in dramatizing this affair, however, is as muddy as the soil that made Collins’s attempted rescue so difficult.
Following a brief prelude, the authors open with Floyd (the charismatic Jim DeSelm) down below. After he becomes trapped, we meet characters on the surface, including Floyd’s family: his hardworking, angry father (Russell Alan Rowe), peacemaking stepmother (Christa Buck), showboating younger brother Homer (Jon Harrison) and devoted sister Nellie (Sarah Bockel). Nellie, we’re told, is recently returned from an insane asylum, though that tidbit goes frustratingly unexplained. Other surface dwellers include an array of confusingly underdeveloped neighbors, many played by actors who double as reporters and other outsiders who descend in the second act.
Landau and Guettel weigh down Floyd and his family with all sorts of blandly sentimental tropes about dreams and dreamers, while the “carnival” suggests ideas about American hucksterism that don’t get fully explored. Guettel’s Americana-tinged score is often lovely, with extra credit due to Alan Bukowiecki’s tight musical direction and Christopher Kriz’s impressive sound design. But it’s also repetitive, and several songs lack the specificity needed to move the characters forward. Peter Marston Sullivan’s crowded, imprecise staging further muddles the action.