Swift Creek Mill Theatre battles the subterranean blues of "Floyd Collins." 

Parts Better than the Hole

It's hard to make a whiz-bang musical about a guy stuck in a hole. Musical theater is a dynamic genre. Dances regularly accompany songs, and bold, sweeping gestures generally dominate modest, intimate ones. So, when the title character is immobilized by falling rocks 10 minutes into Swift Creek Mill Theatre's "Floyd Collins," it sure seems like an insurmountable liability. However, given such a fundamental challenge, this well-designed production does a remarkable job.

It helps that the real-life story the play tells is a powerful one. In 1925, fearless spelunker Floyd Collins (played by Matthew Reeder) was in the process of discovering the Great Sand Cave in the hills of Kentucky when falling rocks trapped him more than 100 feet underground. The show chronicles his entrapment and the media circus that erupted during the two weeks spent trying to get him out. Tempers flare as different characters fight over the best rescue strategy. Meanwhile, deep in the earth, Collins struggles to maintain his strength and sanity.

The tension over whether Collins will survive lends this play significant dramatic power. However, this tension also undermines its strength as a musical. Early on in the show, my companion whispered, "Why don't they stop singing and start digging?" Indeed, the first act is surprisingly static. Though director and scenic designer Tom Width does a masterful job evoking the cave — with a steeply slanted stage and an ingenious collection of lumber acting as the cavern walls — too much time is spent early on hanging out with Collins wedged in the dark underground.

The only thing that keeps these early scenes from being interminable is a trio of superior performances. Reeder is awe-inspiring as Collins. Trapped as he is during most of the show, he communicates more with his face and voice than many actors could with their whole bodies. Richard Koch plays the first reporter on the scene, Skeets Miller, and infuses his character with remarkable depth and humanity. And as Collins' brother Homer, Sean MacLaughlin never loses focus, his anxiety and anger giving the first act what little momentum it has.

After the intermission, the show improves as the media madness over Floyd's fate intensifies. Musical director Paul Deiss pulls some vibrant interpretations of the difficult score from his small orchestra. A poetic dream sequence highlights the variations of light that designer Bill Jenkins uses to enhance the contrast between life above and below ground. Though few of the subsidiary characters get fully developed, Thom Moore and Robyn O'Neill find moments to shine as Collins' father and sister respectively. And Jason Sawyer reprises his haunting rendition of "The Ballad of Floyd Collins," which alone is nearly as evocative and powerful as the rest of the play.

With its alternating intervals of vigor and lethargy, the show has an unpolished feel to it. Though the score often soars, the script is frequently inconsistent. The Mill's talented troupe never allows "Floyd Collins" to get buried, but it also can't fully dig itself out from under the show's problematic

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