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A CurtainUp Review
The Burnt Part Boys
By Elyse Sommer
To backtrack a bit, coal mining is dark and dangerous work that for many men is their only livelihood and a way of life passed from father to son. As generations of men have descended into the pits to mine the seams and swallow lung damaging coal dust, so writers have successfully mined their world for stories. Novelist D. H. Lawrence, himself a coal miner's son, struck gold with Sons and Lovers, as did Emile Zola with Germinal. Both these books attracted huge audiences on screen as well as in print.
The attempt to turn playwright Emlyn Williams' The Corn is Green into a musical for Bette Davis failed, but a revival starring Kate Burton and her son Morgan Ritchie was a major hit of the summer 2007 Williamstown Theatre season. Of course, musicalizing a mining background succeeded brilliantly as the film-to-stage musical Billy Elliott, about a young dancer whose dream-come-true career proved to be a morale booster for his mining community's economic collapse under the Thatcher regime.
The Burnt Part Boys is hardly a mega musical on the order of Billy Elliott. However, the spade of recent mining disasters in this country as well as in Russia and China, have imbued it with an even stronger sens of life imitating art than when I saw it in 2006, at which time it launched Barrington Stage's Musical Lab productions mentored by William Finn. (Review of Lab production). Thus The Burnt Part Boys is big in terms of its parallels to very recent events. But, despite the changes made between its developmental beginnings (which included workshops at Vassar as well as the Barrington Stage production) and this production at Playwrights Horizons' elegant Main Stage, this remains a small show, purposely abstaining from glitzy Broadway stage touches.
Mariana Elder's book remains basically unchanged. We follow a group of young West Virginians who in 1962 are still haunted by the tragic collape ten years earlier of the South Mountain Mine. Their story turns into a dangerous but emotionally transformative adventure when the town's Coal Company breaks its vow never to reopen the mine and keep the deserted mountainous area that's become known as The Burnt Part as a memorial to the miners buried there. Fourteen-year-old Pete (Al Calderon), one of the dead miners' sons who's much under the influence of the heroes who dominate the Western movies he loves, is determined to prevent the mine from reopening at any cost. His 18-year-old brother Jake (Charlie Brady) feels obliged to take advantage of the economic opportunity as part of his obligation to take care of his kid brother and their mother who's apparently been depressed and unable to function since the tragedy.
While The Burnt Part Boys isn't sung-through, it has the feel of a contemporary chamber opera. Chris Miller's pop-bluegrass score, despite having plenty of bounce, falls into the rubrik of the Adam Guetell, Michael John LaChiusa and Jeanine Tesori school of non-hummable musical theater. Hummable or not, and despite a degree of sameness overall, the songs are eminently listenable as presented by the strong voiced 9-member cast. That includes Charlie Brady the original Jake who won audiences hearts and hurrahs at Barrington Stage.
The director and design team who did such a fantastic job making The Burnt Part Boys work in the tiny space in the Pittsfield library's basement auditorium are also aboard for this coming of age production. They've clearly made every effort to retain the intimacy and simplicity of the original. But the larger space has made this as much an uphill struggle for Joe Calcaro and his crafts team as it is for Pete and Jake and their companions to find their way to the Burnt Part, and out of the disastrous darkness before the finale. Those companions are Pete's sidekick Dusty (an amusing and adorably apple cheeked Noah Galvin), Jake's best friend Chet (Andrew Durand a wonderful singer and engaging actor) and the orphaned runaway Frances (Molly Ranson doing a creditable teenie bopper Annie Oakley) they meet up with along the way.
Brian Prather has again used abstract props (movable ladders and chairs) to evoke treacherous, easy to get lost in mountain roads. He's extended the woodsy forest feeling by covering the the side aisles as well as the walkway between the theater's D and E Rows with wood to create an atmosphere to make the audience feel part of the journey from Jake and Pete's home through the gnarled roads up in the hills. It's all very imaginative, greatly enhanced by Chris Lee's moody lighting, especially one scene that shows the boys' expedition in silhouette. Unfortunately the larger space works against truly pulling the audience in enough to forget that they're in a play. The library basement theater had the audience seated at each side of the narrow stage but this venue is just too large and spacious to replicate that feeling. In fact, I found myself more distracted and distanced than drawn in by the use of the aisles and the constant movement of the ladders on that spacious stage.
Not being a director or scenic designer, I can't say what this always inventive director could have done to avoid the distancing effect short of a brand new design concept. Having the actors often step out of their positions on the road to the Burnt Part to face the audience and belt out a solo or ensemble songs (the latter often bringing on the miner-ensemble) concert style adds to the problem.
On a more positive note, cutting Jake's girlfriend, who happened to be the mine owner's spoiled daughter, was a smart move as she was a trite and unnecessary character. Naturally, this called for songs to replace those featuring her. The current production also shed its intermission during previews which is definitely a good idea. (A bit more trimming would not have been out of order). Finally, while it was a thrill to have the composer and lyricist play their own music unamplified and with just one additional musician, a pianist, the current production's slightly larger and never seen band and the subtly placed tiny head mikes still make for enjoyable listening and clear lyrics.
Despite my quibbles, it's heartening to see the Barrington Stage Lab program's mission of nurturing new musical theater work fulfilled by having two of its productions staged at theater companies with stellar reputations. (Calvin Berger, another coming of age story inspired by the guy with the large nose, received a highly polished production at George Street Playhouse; read the review (here). Maybe The Mysteries Of Harris Burdick, adapted from a lovely Chris Van Allsburg's children's book which was also directed by Joe Calarco and had music and lyrics by Miller and Tyson, will show up again somewhere soon. (Review).