In the Appalachia range of West Virginia two brothers are in a race to reach a long closed mine, where their father and eleven other miners died, from which their bodies were never recovered.
Now, years later, the company has decided to reopen operations there, leading to the son of one of the lost miners, 14-year-old Pete (Daniel David Stewart) resolved to prevent what he regards as a desecration of his father’s shrine. He struggles up the torturous path to the crest, joined by his elfin best friend Dusty (Adam Dingeman) and the town’s hellcat (Lauren Patten), intent on sealing the shaft forever with a pouch of stolen dynamite sticks.
Young Pete is painfully aware that even if his effort succeeds he will then face the full wrath of the company, but his flagging spirits are bolstered by the appearances of Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (played by Matt Musgrove with little delineation and less panache) from the greatest movie ever made John Wayne’s 1960 epic “The Alamo”.
Pursuing Pete is his older brother Jake (Aaron Scheff), who, as we are informed in song, “should be graduating, but the company got him first.” For Jake, the mine’s reopening promises the means to support his widowed mother and sibling, and he and his hard drinking friend, Chet (Joe Donohoe) are determined to keep the younger boys from carrying out their mad plan.
So they climb higher up into the cloudy mists that cling to the mountain peak, unaware that it serves as the shroud to the phantom of the dead miners and that their efforts are observed by their fathers’ shades.
The cast of this chimerical allegory give their all to this production and are to be commended for a valiant effort, but their efforts cannot surmount the non-extant book, a musical score lacking any diversity, and an uninspired and ponderously presentational directorial style.
Mariana Elder, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen fragrantly disregard the first commandment of musical theatre: “Thou shalt not use musical numbers to advance the plot.” Musical numbers can build upon plot, can counterpoint it, or any number of things, but it is a mistake to attempt to convey the dramatic narrative of a work via song and dance.
A quick illustration for those of you who may doubt me on this: if one removes all the songs from West Side Story what remains is the book by Arthur Laurents, and the story, consisting of a beginning, middle and end of two star crossed lovers.
Remove all the songs from “The Burnt Part Boys” and you’ll find Mariana Elder’s book contains no cohesive narrative, rather it feels as if the writer, in formulating the show’s tale resorted to a stencil of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces”, resulting in a story structure that strikes one more like a connect-the-dots.
Nathan Tysen’s lyrics are called upon to provide all the dramatic details which are intended to lure us into indentifying with a character and caring about them. It is a vital part of any staging, and it is not the job of the lyricist.
Another major problem afflicting the show is lack of diversity within the score. Again consider the variance found in the Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story”: “Something’s Coming“, “Maria“, “America“, the instrumental “Dance At The Gym“, “Somewhere“, “Tonight“, “The Jets Song“, “I Feel Pretty“, “A Boy Like That”, “Gee, Officer Krupke”.
Chris Miller’s score, whatever its merits, unfortunately quickly falls prey to a sameness, melding the show into a melodic monotony.
Richard Israel, who so skillfully staged DOMA’s “Avenue Q” earlier this year, brings little to the table here. So little in fact, that in the midst of assorted musical numbers I found myself more captivated by Will Pellegrini’s superb set than by what was on it. Not a good sign.
Let it be known, however, that my lovely wife Marlene accompanied me to “The Burnt Part Boys”. She found it an exceptional show in every aspect, thought the cast perfection, loved the music, was moved by the story and didn’t want it to end.
Marlene is an astute, devoted theatregoer and I have included her remarks here to provide this review with a certain balance.
And because Marlene threatened to stop shaving her legs if I didn’t.