In 1925 rural Kentucky, daring young explorer Floyd Collins harbored dreams of fame and fortune. Seeking a site for a lucrative tourist attraction, he slithered down the narrow passageways of a deep cave and got trapped, which led to a 17-day rescue effort. He became a legend quite different from the one he imagined. Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, wrote the score for this musical dramatization of the fact-based story, with book and additional lyrics by Tina Landau. Director Richard Israel helms one of West Coast Ensemble's most ambitious and accomplished efforts, but the play proves overrated. Guettel's eclectic score is challenging and artful, but Landau's book fails to parlay the intriguing tale into a cohesive dramatic piece.
Dovetailing a tragic fable of dreams gone awry with a satire on media frenzy requires a stronger thematic continuity than is evident in Landau's text. These two primary story elements seem unfocused, as do the episodic sequences delineating various reactions of family and townspeople and Floyd's spiritual journey. The score, which encompasses bluegrass, folk, opera, and even yodeling, for the most part does a better job of integrating the characters' joyous and sorrowful moods. The major exception is a token Broadway-style ditty—a jazzy lark deftly delivered by three headline-hungry reporters (Brian Weir, Denny Downs, and Alex Kaufman) and spryly choreographed by Cate Caplin. It's a great number trapped in the wrong play.
In the title role, Bryce Ryness exudes charisma and sings beautifully. He poignantly conveys Floyd's contradictory emotions: exuberance, fear, sorrow, panic, despair, and ultimately acceptance. Likewise excellent are David Kaufman as Skeets Miller, the reporter who played an important part in the rescue attempt, winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism; Stef Tovar as Floyd's distraught brother Homer; and Dana Reynolds as his waif-like sister Nellie. Israel elicits impeccable ensemble work, and music director Johanna Kent capably serves the complex score. Evan A. Bartoletti's astonishing set and Lisa D. Katz's evocative lighting are extraordinary. Despite this musical's significant flaws, Israel's masterful staging represents a watershed accomplishment for his venerable company.
"Floyd Collins," presented by and at West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 11-Apr. 3. $32-35. (323) 525-0022.