Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2006
The first thing this show needs is a new title. The Burnt Part Boys suggests a tragic tale of burn victims or innocent civilians wounded as “collateral damage” in some war. In fact this is a fairly gentle musical coming-of-age tale about two brothers, Jake and Pete Twitchell, set in the coal mining country of Virginia in 1962. Their father was one of a dozen miners killed in a mining disaster ten years earlier. The portion of the mine where the men lost their lives was closed down and the site burned to the ground, hence it has earned the local nick-name The Burnt Part. Jake and Pete are therefore Burnt Part Boys, two of the group of children left fatherless by the disaster.
Upon hearing that the mining company intends to reopen The Burnt Part, 14-year-old Pete (Daniel Zaitchik) decides to steal some dynamite from the company shed and head up the mountain to destroy the area he considers his father’s grave. Jake (Charlie Brady), four years his senior, who has dropped out of high school to work in the mine and support the family, figures out his brother’s scheme ridiculously quickly, and sets off to stop him.
Each brother takes a slightly less handsome and intelligent male side-kick along for the journey – Pete is accompanied by the lumpy and dreamy Dusty Rivers (Robert Krecklow) and Jake by the beer-swilling, skirt-chasing Chet (Brandon Ellis). Jake is also pursued by his girlfriend Annie Spangler (Halle Petro), daughter of the owner of the mine company, the perfectly coiffed prom queen and valedictorian, who is peeved when he doesn’t appear for her graduation party. Pete and Dusty acquire the feisty 13-year-old tom-boy Frances Boggs (Katherine McClain), who promises to guide them up to the Burnt Part after she breaks their compass.
Surrounding the action is a chorus composed of four ghosts of the dead miners – Joseph Breen, Robert Dalton, Drew Davidson, and Brian Litscher. And Pete is visited frequently by the ghost of his father (Tom Ewing), who appears in his fantasies as various film heroes Pete idolizes.
The 12-mile route up to The Burnt Part covers rough terrain, but no real life-threatening danger rears its head until the final minutes when all six teens converge at the Burnt Part and Pete puts his plan into action. The bulk of the show concerns itself with putting these kids, all of them good souls at heart, through various gentle challenges that test their will and endurance. Needless to say there is a happy ending, and a nice catharsis in which Jake, Pete, Chet, and Frances all come to terms with the fathers they have lost.
“The Burnt Part Boys” is the first public performance of a show developed by Barrrington Stage Company’s newly launched Musical Theatre Lab, mentored by William Finn. It is a work in progress, which, if like its older sibling The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee it has a life beyond the Berkshires, will go through several more iterations. While Burnt Part Boys doesn’t have the obvious commercial appeal of …Spelling Bee it has a lot going for it, notably an intriguing score by Chris Miller and, in this incarnation, really creative staging by director Joe Calarco on an inventive set by Brian Prather.
The press, myself included, expended many sentences praising BSC’s conversion of the previously dreary basement auditorium of the Berkshire Athenaeum into a comfy and inviting performance space for The Collyer Brothers at Home, their first Stage II production there. Some even went so far as to call the space the star of that show. Well, surprise, surprise, Calarco and Prather have completely rebuilt the space for “The Burnt Part Boys.” Where it was previously all urban bricky-brownstoney it is now all rough-sawn lumber and dark crannies pierced with light. The theatre was configured as a standard proscenium space, and it is now a long narrow rectangle of playing space on the floor, with shallow banks of seats flanking the long sides. The only drawback to this configuration comes when Calarco stages business at both ends of the space, causing the audience to swivel their heads back and forth as if at a tennis match.
What was the stage for The Collyer Brothers… has been raised way above floor level and makes a little diorama-style box for the band – piano (Deborah Abramson), guitar (composer Chris Miller), and harmonica (lyricist Nathan Tysen). I am not sure the musicians could stand up straight without hitting their heads on the ceiling.
Prather, lighting designer Chris Lee, and sound designer Megan B. Henniger have literally transformed the space into a mine shaft, which becomes dramatically obvious in the opening number God’s Eyes sung by the Miners. We hear the drip and echo of the mine. The wooden walls behind each half of the audience are backlit so that bright shafts of yellow light spray out from between the slats, severed by each miner as he walks between the light and the wall. I swear even the miners’ costumes, designed by Elizabeth Flauto, smelled of coal dust and damp.
The youngsters in the cast (although none of them are nearly as young as they are playing) are all talented, appealing, and thoroughly professional. This a demanding show vocally, Miller weaves several heartbreaking multi-part harmonies, and they all sing beautifully. Zaitchik and Brady look believably like brothers, and they are both very handsome young men. I preferred the less perfect and more lifelike looks of Ellis and Krecklow.
Krecklow, who originated the role of Dusty in the staged reading of this show at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is just delightful. He must be almost a decade older than his character, but of all the adults-playing-adolescents he is the most heartbreakingly believeable. His Dusty is a fully fleshed out creation. I wish that librettist Mariana Elder had allowed Dusty to be a Burnt Part Boy too.
Actually, most of my direct criticism is for Elder. Oddly, for a play written by a woman, the female roles both feel like afterthoughts, as if she wrote this great play about these boys and then thought “Oops! We need some girls in here!” Perhaps Miller insisted she include some for the vocal diversity. But there is nothing wrong with writing a play about boys. There would also be nothing wrong with writing this same story about an 18-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister coping with coming of age without their father. With Pete being male Jake worries that his day-dreaming and artistic nature will make him unfit for his inevitable career in the mines, a career Pete really doesn’t want and wishes were less inevitable. If Pete were a girl she wouldn’t have a chance to work down the mines, and her frustration over her father’s untimely death would take on a completely different sensibility.
But looking at the characters as they stand, there are too many of them, which is why I wish, if there are going to be girls in the story, that they would be more tightly integrated. Frances, a charming character winningly played by McClain, comes out of nowhere. And Annie, whose descent from preppy perfection to mud-covered survivor Petro plays beautifully, is an outsider in every way. Since her father owns the mine her connection to the disaster at the Burnt Part and the company’s decision to reopen it are very different, uncomfortably different from the others. Her family’s wealth and the value they place on education separate her further. None of this sense of otherness is explored in Elder’s book or Tysen’s lyrics.
There are also some howling anachronisms in the script and in the production – blunders that are so obvious it is embarrassing that they made it all the way to this stage in the show’s development. Teens in 1962 did not use the words “geek” and “sweet” the way they do now, nor would they have casually used some of the “rough language” these kids let loose with, and lip wands such as the one Annie pulled out of her lovely wintage purse were not commercially available yet. Surely someone still sells good old lipstick in a tube?
Minor imperfections aside, The Burnt Part Boys is a show with great promise. And there is great fun to be had watching a show develop over time. Should this piece go on to bigger venues, the intimacy and visceral energy so palpable here will be harder to recreate. All of these are excellent reasons to go see it now at the Athenaeum where its run has been extended to July 15. I would imagine kids nine and up would especially enjoy this tale of their peers on an adventure.
The Barrington Stage Company Musical Theatre Lab’s production of The Burnt Part Boys runs through July 15 at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, MA. Performances are Wednesday through Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Sunday at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25-$30. Call the box office 413-236-8888 or from South County call 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006