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Dear Adam Guettel: See ‘Floyd Collins’ and ‘Piazza’ in Chicago

Jim DeSelm (from left) Sarah Bockel JHarrisstar Bohemian Theatre Ensemble’s producti“Floyd Collins.”

Jim DeSelm (from left), Sarah Bockel and Jon Harrison star in Bohemian Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Floyd Collins.”

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When: Through July 15

Where: BoHo Theatre
at Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $22-$28

Info: (773) 975-8150 or visit

Updated: July 21, 2012 6:07AM

An open letter to composer-lyricist Adam Guettel.

Dear Mr. Guettel:

I truly wish you would hop a flight to Chicago during the next few weeks to catch the exquisite and in many ways revelatory revivals of your two best-known musicals: “Floyd Collins” (which just opened in a powerhouse BoHo Theatre production) and “The Light in the Piazza” (now in a much-acclaimed and extended run through July 14 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre).

Before going any further I will confess: I saw the elaborate Goodman Theatre production of “Floyd Collins” in 1999, as well as multiple productions of “Piazza” (at the Goodman, Lincoln Center and beyond). And while I was intrigued by aspects of both shows, I can’t say I ever fell wholly in love with either. But thanks to these two productions I’ve become a total convert, and it has everything to do with scale.

These Chicago revivals are being done in small theaters with fewer than 60 seats, with “Floyd Collins” using subtle amplification and “Piazza” sung acoustically. And intimacy is the key to their impact. Your songs often take the form of beautiful interior monologues, or focus on supremely personal interaction. Trying to “sell” them on a large stage distorts and undermines them. Their heart gets lost.

Of course with your legendary grandfather, Richard Rodgers, looming, the push to Broadway is ever-present. But these small-scale versions do far greater justice to your work.

“Floyd Collins” (created with Tina Landau) was inspired by the true story of a rural Kentucky cave explorer who, in February of 1925, became trapped under rock while 100 feet below ground. Efforts to rescue Floyd, a money-strapped dreamer who saw the tourism potential of the place, lasted for more than two weeks and generated deep family anguish, corporate opportunism and an unexpected media circus.

Ideally cast and staged by Peter Marston Sullivan, with superb musical direction by Alan Bukowiecki (and an outstanding band led by Allison Hendrix), the production is utterly enthralling. The score — a haunting mix of bluegrass, folk ballad, vaudeville and more — is wonderfully rendered in almost conversational tones by an ensemble of authentic faces and fine voices.

Jim DeSelm, handsome, graceful and expressive, easily embodies the quirky, visionary aspects of Floyd, as well as his sweetness, and he keeps you rooting for his salvation. There also are splendid turns by Jon Harrison as Homer, Floyd’s devoted (if celebrity-prone) brother; Sarah Bockel as Nellie, his emotionally fragile sister; Greg Foster as “Skeets” Miller, the cub reporter who develops a deep bond with the trapped man; Russell Alan Rowe as Floyd’s conflicted dad, and Christa Buck as his stepmother.

Designers Diane D. Fairchild (sets and lights), Kristen Ahern (costumes) and Christopher Kriz (terrific sound design) create the ideal atmosphere. And those beautiful choruses of echoes reverberate long after leaving the theater. Calling Adam Guettel, Guettel, Guettel: Come to Chicago and hear it for yourself.

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