‘In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine …’  it’s very hard to get Huckleberry Hound’s tone-deaf version of ‘Clementine’ out of your head at this musical where a young Kentucky man, trying to find a better entrance to the sand cave under his parents’ farm in order to make it a tourist attraction, caught his foot not ‘against a splinter’ but under a rock and after fourteen days dies of exposure before a rescue tunnel can be dug to him. This cheery narrative is the meat and bones of Floyd Collins, Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical at Wilton’s.

As the grandson of Richard Rodgers, Guettel obviously feels the need to mine a fresh musical seam and to position himself in the post-Sondheim generation of composers. Despite the gloom of the subject, he delivers a complex and occasionally beautiful score with arresting off-kilter rhythms and bitonal harmonies amid influences of bluegrass, and troubadour, and the Appalachian lilts of Aaron Copland. But the very pretentiousness of that musical analysis is what defeats Floyd Collins in its aim to become popular entertainment – it tries too hard to be clever.

Metaphor is laid on with a trowel in the staging, too, as Floyd is skewered to scaffolding in crucifixion pose as though this were a Passion Play and he some sort of prophet followed by the second-act jamboree of stereotype trilby-hatted news hounds, and the Pharisees of a burgeoning radio and movie industry.

As a satire on newspaper exploitation, it falls way short of The Front Page or Ace In The Hole and as a musical it’s just another notch on Guettel’s exploratory gunbelt to add to his operatic The Light in the Piazza – a European romance engineered for American audiences whose vision of the continent derives exclusively from Audrey Hepburn movies.

All of which is a shame, because the singing and acting talent on display – and Tom Brady’s band – are mostly first class. You have to feel for Ashley Robinson as Floyd required to sing a twelve-minute opening ballad in which he ‘describes’ everything in his sand cave, rather as though Aladdin had been lowered on his rope by Abanazer and found the stage crew were on strike so there was no scenery.  However between the oddness of the lyrics and the mutilations of the sound system, most of it was impossible to decipher.

Third time lucky, Adam? I really hope so.  By the time he was your age, grandad had written Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific

 

until 15 October