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Eye of a media storm: Floyd Collins 

Fact-based production features sets appeal

The signature moment of Floyd Collins occurs soon after the musical begins, when Floyd discovers the place that the media will subsequently name Sand Cave. Transported by dreams of curio shops, lines of tourists, and money, money, money for his family, Floyd sings "The Call," an extraordinary concept by songwriter Adam Guettel. Part wonder, part jubilation, and part triumphant capitalist greed, the song crests in a nonverbal call that is close to a yodel, Floyd flinging out his voice into the vast pitch-black void of his discovery. With multiple echoes bouncing back, the song becomes a cavernous fugue before it finally subsides into foreboding silence.

Thinking he had struck it rich, Collins had actually dug his own grave. On his way back to the surface, Collins is trapped. Friends and family are able to locate Floyd by the sound of his voice, but only Skeets Miller, a diminutive cub reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, is able to reach him. Skeets' reporting in 1929 won him the Pulitzer Prize, sparking an influx of curiosity seekers at his Kentucky home and a media frenzy that spread to newspapers and radio nationwide.

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre not only presents a handsome Charlotte premiere of the 1996 Obie Award-winning musical score, it's providing an afterlife for a recent Schiele Museum exhibit on caves in its lobby. Ushers in miner hard hats will whisk you into the lobby between acts, but for a full immersion in CAST's experiential theater, consider arriving early — there's more info on caves to ingest than a mere intermission allows.

Thanks to Dee Blackburn's boldly conceived set design, there are wonders to behold inside the theater as well. A truckload of recycled newspapers, imported from Shelby, has been turned into a mighty two-story evocation of the cave Floyd discovered, the Collinses' Kentucky hometown, and the hillside overlooking the shaft where Floyd lies trapped. Up high on the hill, you can espy musical director John Coffey over the ridge at the keyboard, leading a capable sextet in CAST's first-ever musical.

To tell the truth, I was too mesmerized by the whole spectacle to investigate how the singers were getting their musical cues from Coffey, who is behind or alongside them. But I did marvel at the precision of those electronic echoes each time they were cued, a testament to the teamwork, I'm supposing, of Coffey, sound designer Sean Kimbro, technical designer Mike Snow, and musical coordinator Parker Foley.

With a first-rate cast directed by Michael R. Simmons, CAST is definitely ready for this first foray into song. Jonathan Elliott Coarsey masters all the musical difficulties — and endurance challenges — of playing Floyd in a performance that eclipses his portrayal of the American champion in last summer's Chess. After his delightful outing as the sickly boy in The Borrowers, Daniel O'Sullivan matures slightly as the picayune Skeets. I was constantly charmed by Barbara Wesselman's quaint costume designs, but Skeets' deer-stalking suit was a special favorite.

Saddled with an inert protagonist, Tina Landau contrives to put Floyd on his feet in dream sequences as well as the obligatory apotheosis, but supporting roles mostly have a circumscribed set of motives as Floyd squirms helplessly at the vortex of the media storm. They're either attempting to locate and rescue our hero, pining for his return, or avidly gathering gossip. Media types like me fall into the last category.

Shining under these constraints are Holly Cenzer as Floyd's sister Nellie, Chaz Pofahl as his brother Homer, and Paula Baldwin as his stepmother Miss Jane. Welcome infusions of villainy are doled out to Floyd's papa Lee, stolidly — and selfishly — rendered by Lou Dalessandro, and the bullying director of a rock and asphalt company who fancies himself Floyd's savior. Devin Gilbert smugly captures that self-serving bastard. Jack Marble and Ted Delorme ably supply the comic bits.

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