The real-life story of a young man who becomes irretrievably trapped in the cave he has discovered in 1920s Kentucky doesn't sound the most obvious basis for a musical. Not much room for the toe-tapping show-stopper here. But from this unlikely material, Adam Guettel (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Tina Landau (book) have fashioned a thing of wonder – a phenomenally haunting piece that leaves you in no doubt that Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, has inherited his forebear's genius.
It's twenty years since Floyd Collins had its off-Broadway premiere. I could now kick myself that I managed to miss both the previous productions on the London fringe (at the Bridewell and Southwark Playhouse) for the feeble reason that on each occasion I was away when they opened. On the other hand, I'm glad to encounter the show fresh here in Jonathan Butterell's stunningly well-sung revival in the atmospheric shadowiness of Wilton's Music Hall. I don't think the hairs on the back of my neck got a moment's rest, such is shiver-inducing sound-world Guettel creates. The twang of country music is warped and darkened by operatic atonality; bluegrass meets Bartok; the ravishing melodic lines go on long chromatic quests as the characters unfold their feelings. Tom Brady's eight-piece band (banjo, harmonica, strings) does knock-out justice to both the power and the delicacy of the score.
This is a show in which rescue bids fail and the dying protagonist becomes the subject of a cynical media circus. The predominant note, though, is one of rapture relived in memory or fomented by the dream/fantasy sequences that allow Floyd to step down from his wedge at the centre of the striking set of tiered scaffolding. Ashley Robinson is superb in a role that is intensely demanding vocally from the first scene in which this stocky, naïve hero discovers the cave that he thinks will win him fame and fortune. He tries to judge its dimensions from the echo of his elaborate yodelling and soon – and this is a measure of the piece's originality – he's engaged in an amazing three-part fugue with his own reverberated voice. In the yodelling stakes, you'd have to say that this is one-up on grandfather's “Lonely Goatherd”.
Indeed, some of the loveliest passages are where the main characters abandon words altogether and let fly in what you would have to describe as a “country” form of scat-singing. It's like an ecstatic doodle that can easily veer into resembling a hopeless cry for help. I don't see how the central triumvirate of Floyd and his siblings could be better performed than it is here by Robinson with Rebecca Trehearn and Samuel Thomas. Trehearn excels as his devoted and disconcertingly unself-monitoring sister who seems to have a history of mental trouble but puts the “sane” to shame with her honesty and directness. Her rendition of “Through The Mountains” – “As we follow all diamonds to the outside” – is achingly beautiful.
The show is not perfect. The impulse to offer a sociological critique of the media carnival doesn't seem to come from as deep within the authors as their sensitive apprehension of the existential crisis. The Andrews Sisters-style boogie-woogie number for the avid reporters is fine but a little facile. When Billy Wilder adapted the same source material into the movie Ace in the Hole, he concentrated on the Kirk Douglas journo who would do anything to maximise his story. Here the main focus is on the dying man, while the skinny reporter (excellent Daniel Booroff) moonlights as Floyd's sincere, would-be saviour (dotting things down in his notebook while dangling from a ledge in his tragi-farcical rescue mission). Never going for the easy option, Floyd Collins is what it sublimely is. On no account to be missed.
To October 15; 020 7702 2789