Canaries in a Coal Mine

I have a confession to make. I’ve been waiting to see The Burnt Part Boys since I first read about it last year. My expectations for this particular show were high. My father grew up the son of a coal miner, who was in turn the son of a coal miner himself. So you could say a production like this about a fictional mining town in rural West Virginia is in my blood. I am happy to report that The Burnt Part Boys not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them. My barometer for musical theater is different from that for straight plays. Whether tragedy or comedy, my main criteria for dramatic accomplishment comes from temporarily forgetting that I’m sitting in a theater amongst a crowd of strangers, losing myself in the story being told on-stage. But with musical theater, if I don’t experience at least one spine-tingling moment during one of the musical numbers, I cannot consider it a success. The Burnt Part Boys contains a number of such profound moments.

A co-production of Playwrights Horizons and Vineyard Theatre, The Burnt Park Boys has been kicking around for a couple of years, including incarnations in 2006 in the Berkshires and a 2009 public lab production at the Vineyard. Created by a trio of NYU Tisch graduate students and protégés of lyricist and composer William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), the show is now a lean intermission-less 100-minute delight sure to resonate with lovers of musical theater.

Ostensibly a double coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old schoolboy and his 18-year-old miner brother who have lost their father in a coal mining accident, The Burnt Park Boys is a rich, moving theatrical experience that has more in common with opera than with the bombast of the current Broadway musical. With a book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, the haunting score features a mix of pop, country, bluegrass, and gospel with a heaping dose of spine-tingling harmonies. The show is economically and brilliantly staged by Joe Calarco (Shakespeare’s R&J) on wooden planks against a backdrop of smoky mountains with only a couple of ladders, some chairs, and a handful of rope.

Al Calderon (13) as younger brother Pete and Charlie Brady (South Pacific) as older sibling Jake are sensational, conveying depth and passion in both their dramatic and singing roles. Their individual solo numbers, “Man I Never Knew” and “Disappear,” respectively, are the emotional highlights of the show, which had audience members wiping tears from their eyes.

Jake’s best friend Chet, played by Andrew Durand (Spring Awakening), wins the award for most authentic accent and has a glorious, bell-clear tenor that blends beautifully with Jake’s silky baritone. And Pete’s doughy sidekick, Dusty, played by the phenomenally talented Noah Galvin (Ace), gives a star-making performance, blending schtick with pathos, culminating in his own electrifying moment in the spotlight, “Dusty Plays the Saw.” Molly Ranson (August: Osage County) in the sole female part, that of “hillbilly trash” Frances, has a lovely singing voice as well and makes the most of a slightly underwritten part. High praise should also be heaped on As the World Turns star Michael Park, who deftly embodies multiple parts as not only Pete and Jake’s dead dad, but also the father figure heroes of Pete’s rich fantasy life, including Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie.

I haven’t divulged much of the plot of The Burnt Part Boys because I think audience members should discover it on their own. Suffice it to say that the narrative is a timely tale about the perils of a life in a mining town that could have literally been torn from recent headlines. The ghostly quartet of miners that open the show and the beacons that emanate from their caps precipitate both the darkness and light to come.

I simply cannot applaud this innovative, distinctive production enough. After seeing the Saturday matinee, I immediately ordered another set of tickets for this weekend. My parents will be visiting from out of town. And I want them to experience the theatrical magic of The Burnt Part Boys for themselves.

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