There's a song at the beginning of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's offbeat and haunting Appalachian musical, "Floyd Collins," that tells its audience the following:

"Listen to the tale of a man who got lost, a hundred feet under the winter frost."

And so the story -- based on a real-life event of 1925 -- is told, a good share of it opera-flavored mixed with the odd call-and-response mountain rhythms of central Kentucky, of "caver" Floyd Collins, a dreamer and a dirt-poor explorer around and in the labyrinthian tunnels around Mammoth Cave. While searching for a new entrance to the cave, Floyd became trapped by fallen rock. Floyd's tragedy became a huge media circus, the biggest national obsession between the two world wars, some said. Floyd was never rescued; he lasted two weeks below, in the end a victim of weather, crumbling cave walls, the obvious tight quarters, thirst, exposure and a certain amount of confusion topside.

Guettel wrote the music and lyrics and Landau the "book" for "Floyd." The work never gained much fame -- a brief Broadway run of 25 performances -- but earned for Guettel, particularly, applause for his challenging and complex score, a prelude to later wide acclaim for his intriguingly beautiful "Light in the Piazza." Guettel is the grandson of the iconic composer Richard Rodgers, so "Floyd" has some pedigree.

American Repertory Theater of Western New York and Jeffrey Coyle, in his directorial debut, have brought "Floyd Collins" to Buffalo East; the pairing has proved to be impressive.

There's a bare-bones set -- a "cave" of sorts and room for the chaos on the surface where family frets, would-be rescuers argue about what to do and the carnival atmosphere grows. Floyd had always taken chances, we learn, but he's a survivor. That ballad in the early going told us that "He didn't worry 'bout what he dreamed; things was going good, or so it seemed." Well, not this time. There's friction among Floyd's dad, Lee, brother Homer, time-bomb sister Nellie and a host of friends and extended family. Rescue strategy is debated, a power struggle emerges, and the press -- notably "Skeets" Miller, small enough to crawl to Floyd to talk and calm -- is fueling the furor.

Director Coyle has a cast that is up to the demands of "Floyd Collins": Steve Copps, excellent as Floyd, has to sing while crouched and cramped -- "An' She'd Have Blue Eyes," among others -- then at story's end, has to be philosophical on "How Glory Goes."

J.R. Finan and Courtney Weather bring life and meaning to Homer and Nellie. Both have their moments vocally: Finan, paired with Copps on "The Riddle Song," Weather's tightly wound Nellie on the powerful "Through the Mountain," pretty and jaunty with Pamela Rose Mangus on "Lucky."

Dudney Joseph, Adam Yellen, Steven Sitzman and Victor Morales are very fine and the Company -- in some sage work by director Coyle in close range -- has fun with one of the night's best, "Is That Remarkable?"

Musical leadership credits belong to Allan Paglia and Larry Albert; yeoman service.


"Floyd Collins"    

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through Oct. 2    

WHERE: Presented by American Repertory Theater of Western New York in Buffalo East, 1410 Main St.    

TICKETS: $15-$20    

INFO: 634-1102,