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BWW Reviews: BoHo's FLOYD COLLINS - An Impressive Blend of Stagecraft and Musicianship

"Floyd Collins," that bold musical that challenges actors, directors, musicians, sound designers and audience members alike, is a bold undertaking for any theater company. It requires real actors, who can create something out of almost nothing they've experienced before, and can really learn and interpret complex music. It takes musicians who can play and sing a strange combination of bluegrass, Broadway, folk and Americana, as if it were Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday In The Park With George" written by Mark O'Connor, or someone trying to be Bill Monroe, Audra McDonald and Pierre Boulez all at the same time. As one of the works which brought the American musical theater into the contemporary era, it takes imagination and hard work, from everybody in the room.

And Chicago's non-Equity Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (or "BoHo Theatre," as it is known to insiders and diehard fans) has undertaken Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's 1996 off-Broadway masterpiece (or close to it) and put it on at Theater Wit on West Belmont Avenue for the next month (through July 25, 2012). If you have imagination enough to meet the company halfway, somewhere between the hardscrabble Kentucky soil and the cave beneath it, where the real Floyd Collins met his doom in 1925, you will come away with a musical and theatrical experience you are unlikely to repeat anytime soon, anywhere else.

In theatricalizing the story of America's first rural media circus, the two-week ordeal surrounding Collins, the rock that trapped him 55 feet below ground, his family and friends, reporters and engineers and claustrophobia and starvation, the Steppenwolf ensemble member Landau and the young Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers) hit upon a theatrical landscape of the mind, where the only way to interpret the story involves sounds, light, costumes and arduous physical tasks for the actors (climbing and crawling, feeling cold or wet, feeling anxious or despairing, all the while forcing them to sing polytonal, multi-rhythmic music punctuated by yelps, yodels and fiddles). These are far more important aspects of any production of this show than realistic sets, continuity of time or actual rocks. One could say that BoHo's "Floyd Collins," directed by artistic director Peter Marston Sullivan, is the traditional way that this non-traditional piece is done. (You gonna build a real cave? Is it going to come and go that often? Really?)

Within, upon and beneath a unit set of platforms covered in crinkly muslin (sets and lights by Diane D. Fairchild), Sullivan's actors (fourteen hearty souls in all) enter and exit the cave, scooting along the real set and dodging imaginary obstacles all the while, carrying some realistic-looking props by Casey Schillo like lanterns, axes, ropes--you name it--trying, with increasing intensity, to rescue the trapped young man. And they're wearing great period earth tones and denim by Kristen Ahern (though I wished more of the men wore overcoats).

Floyd is played here by Jim DeSelm, in a performance at the end of a remarkable year for this actor, as full and strenuous and fragile and likeable a performance as you could possibly imagine. He's onstage for the entire show. And he's handsome, too (and he sings like a dream!). A star is born, methinks. As Skeets Miller, the skinny reporter who is the only man small enough to reach Floyd until a small avalanche cuts off all access to him, Greg Foster is smart, empathetic, regretful, and his soul is gradually burned by the flames of frenzy he has helped to fan. And as Floyd's younger brother, Homer, Jon Harrison has a beautiful voice, and the dynamism and charisma to match.

The only two ladies in the cast, Christa Buck as Floyd's step-mother and especially Sarah Bockel as his sister, Nellie, sing with lovely lyricism and frontier fragility, steel magnolias fighting to stay in bloom amid harsh realities. Steve O'Connell, as H. T. Carmichael, the man in charge of the failed rescue operation, does a good job with the meanness of his character, finally showing some humanity in later scenes.  As Floyd's father, Lee, Russell Alan Rowe doesn't quite show what is lurking beneath the man's banal surface, though when it finally comes bubbling out it is sufficient enough. Evan Tyrone Martin makes a great deal out of the role of Ed Bishop, and the trio of reporters, Benjamin Kirkberger, Tom McGunn and Michael Potsic, sings very well and pleased the opening night crowd. Nathan Carroll, Patrick Rooney and David Tibble round out the hard-working, great-sounding cast.

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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