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"Floyd Collins:" not your typical musical

Pick the term that does not belong with the others: caves, Kentucky, overalls, fiddles, moonshine, musical theater. The last one, right? Perhaps not. Live Arts' last production of the 2001-2002 season, Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's "Floyd Collins" draws on the true story of Collins, a spelunker and entrepreneur who lay trapped for 18 days in February 1925 in a Kentucky cave before dying inside. His predicament sparked what many regard as the first modern media circus of on-site news coverage.

"Collins" puts the audience in a strange position: it's a musical whose weakest element is its musicality. But the acting performances are strong, and the creative gesture behind the play - the act of turning Collins' story into a folk musical - is provokingly clever.

Director John Gibson, co-director Amanda McRaven, and musical directors Doug Schneider and Mary Elizabeth Forbes lead a passionate cast in the ambitious project of recreating a world of pre-Depression Appalachia for the musical stage.

The story goes roughly as follows: Collins (Christ Estey) is a simple Kentucky man with dreams of wealth and fame; he imagines finding a cave that he could turn into a major tourist attraction and moneymaker. The play begins with him believing he has found just such a cave on one exploring trip, but a rock falls on his leg, trapping him inside the cave, 150 feet underground. Major rescue efforts begin, as newspaper and radio reporters flock to the small farm to cover the story. Collins' home is transformed into a frenzied zoo for over two weeks before his death inside the cave.

His story provides unique and captivating material for a sort of hillbilly revision of the genre; it feels very different from more typical musical plots and scores.

As a result, "Collins" stands as a bold challenge to our entrenched notions of what might be suitable for the musical stage. Can a man in overalls, singing with a fiddle accompaniment, be a leading man? Can a musical really take place in a Kentucky cave?

"Collins"proves, I think, that the answer to such questions is yes. But there is a problem: the fact that "Collins" is a musical remains considerably more interesting and compelling than the music itself.

There are musical high points, to be sure: "The Ballad of Floyd Collins" is a memorable refrain that sets the tone for the play and spins together many of the key issues. And the company opens Act II with a pointed, biting satire of the American media's sensationalism in "Is That Remarkable?"

But many of the songs feel like narrative prose wrenched into music - the lyrics, at times, feel wholly unlike lyrics. That might be innovative, but it also seems to keep the play from flowing forward, from progressing with a feeling of inevitability. Likewise, the singing is not the strongest I've seen at Live Arts, even this year, though Floyd's sister Nellie Collins (Alice Reed) provides a notable exception - her vocal performance shines above that of the rest of the cast.

There is, though, a play behind the music - one that has a lot to say about some big subjects, even if it does so in a rather unassuming manner. The connection between earth and people, between the landscape around us and the mental landscape we carry with us everywhere - even into the deepest reaches of the earth - emerges subtly but clearly. "Collins" handles this relationship between setting and psychology beautifully. It draws on the connection between the maze-like cave and the psyche of a doomed, scared man without slipping into overdramatic soliloquy.

Rather than have Collins wax melancholic while he lies pinned to a board for the duration of the show, confronting the painfully slow approach of death, the script uses dialogue with his brother Homer (Adam Vanderwielen) and the first journalist on the scene, Skeets Miller (Giorgio Litt). Genuine relationships emerge between Collins and each man.

But perhaps most interestingly, "Collins" relies on scenes of flashbacks and dreams to help dramatize Collins' mental state. The result is a humble probing into the idea of being trapped, of feeling the walls of life caving in around you. "Collins" leaves us to ponder our fate amid this challenge in relation to themes of memory and imagination. Are these the forces that encroach and trap us or are they the keys to our liberation? This, I think, is the most crucial question the play - perhaps even theater itself. It asks: Does, or can, our mind provide our prison or our freedom?