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The Burnt Part Boys
By Elyse Sommer
The talented trio's work fits into the new musical genre represented by composers like Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza), Michael John LaChiusa (See What I Wanna See) and Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change)-- semi-operatic musicals with powerful story lines and music that, no matter how lyrical and lush, doesn't readily lend itself to hit tune hummability. Thus, if you go to see The Burnt Part Boys expecting light summer entertainment with catchy tunes and spiffy production values, you'll be disappointed. What you will get is a rich, moving story that could be torn from any number of tragic headlines, told through beautifully crafted characterizations, and with more directorial imagination and resourcefulness than expensive scenic props.
Elder's book efficiently and effectively relates the epic story of a group of teen agers in rural Virginia whose fathers were killed in a 1952 coal mine accident. The title refers to the site which the mine's owners burned to the ground. The action begins ten years after that accident and its conflict is set in motion by the announcement that the company is planning to reopen the mine. Eighteen-year-old Jake (Charlie Brady), who has had to take care of his depressed mother and his kid brother Pete (Daniel Zaitchik) is resigned to being trapped in the life that killed his father; not so Pete whose notions of what's right are derived from the heroes of the movies that have provided him with a fantasy life filled with substitute father heroes. And so, Pete, convinced the mines' reopening dishonors the dead miners, inveigles his sidekick Dusty (Robert Krecklow), the awkward fatty who is part of so many coming of age stories, to help him foil the mine owners by dynamiting the mine. Jake, knowing his brother's head-in-the-movies aptitude for wild fantasy schemes, gets wind of his plan and with his own sidekick, Chet (Brandon Ellis), sets out to stop him.
The two fourteen-year-olds empower themselves to carry out their destructive missions by playing John Wayne, James Stewart and assorted other movie tough guys. They and the older, more grounded boys are wiser and less angry before the cross-purpose missions come to an end -- as are the show's two female characters, Jake's girl friend Annie (Halle Petro), the mine owner's privileged daughter and Frances (Katherine McClain), an angry also orphaned tomboy.
The young actors -- especially Brady and Zaitchick, who actually look like brothers-- all give finely nuanced, convincing performances and sing superbly. McClain and Petro are both a bit shrill at first but eventually settle more comfortably into their roles. Some of the most satisfying scenes from a dramatic as well as musical perspective are provided by Tim Ewing who multi-tasks superbly as the various fantasy movie figures as well as Jake and Pete's dad. The plot is ingeniously interwoven with appearances by a four-member ensemble of ghostly miners, all of whom contribute to the show's musical strength.
Nathan Tysen's lyrics advance both plot and characterizations. The music resonates with warmth and feeling though, given the Virginia hill country setting a bit more of a country flavor might have made it soar more memorably.
It's certainly a pleasure to hear songs performed without the usual excessive amplification. Conductor and keyboardist Deborah Abramson, accompanied by composer Chris Miller on the guitar and lyricist Tysen on the harmonica never drown out the words. Still, like most of these new musicals its songs need to be heard more than once for a really fair assessment. Suffice it to say every number is expertly integrated and marvelously well sung.
Finally, a stand-up ovation for Joe Calarco. This director first made a splash on the theatrical horizon with his inventive adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (Our Review). Here he makes do with some ladders on wheels, chairs and ropes to suggest the lush but tricky mountain terrain. With the help of set designer Brian Prather and Chris Lee's mood-appropriate lighting, Calarco has turned the basement auditorium of the Pittsfield public library into another world. It's a world well worth visiting by anyone who cares about innovative theater.
Oh, and bring tissues. I saw more than a few glistening eyes all around me.